Historically, the debate over net neutrality has been between techies, public interest groups, and big telecoms,” says activist Steven Renderos. “The real voices of people outside of D.C. haven’t really been heard on these issues up until this last year.”

What made this past year different was an overwhelming public push for stronger net neutrality protections. Back in January 2014, a federal appeals court threw out the bedrock net neutrality rules of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), thereby allowing big telecoms like Comcast to provide faster speeds to websites that could afford to pay for them. It didn’t take long for users and activists to push back, and push back they did. By September, the FCC had received more than 3.7 million comments — enough to crash its website. And then this past February, after the petitioning and organizing had gone on for months, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced sweeping new protections for a free and open internet. Called Title II reclassification, the new rules label the web as a public utility that must operate on a level playing field. “This is a big deal,” Renderos adds.

Renderos is the policy director of the Center for Media Justice, one of many groups at the forefront of the recent net neutrality push. As a nationwide coalition of more than 150 activist groups, the Center for Media Justice (in concert with its activist offshoot, the Media Action Grassroots Network) has worked at the intersection of media policy and social justice for more than a decade. Through popular education, community organizing, and grassroots media projects, the group has worked tirelessly to amplify the voices of communities of color and low-income people and to challenge corporate control of the media system. The coalition has enjoyed more than a few major victories in recent years, on everything from laws governing municipal broadband to local control of radio. But net neutrality is by far the most critical issue.

“Net neutrality is the free speech of the internet,” says Malkia A. Cyrus, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice. “It’s the principal set of rules that keeps the internet fair and levels the playing field.” But like Renderos, Cyrus sees mainstream coverage of these issues as a barrier to organizing. “We know that the way these issues are talked about is very technocratic — people don’t understand it,” she says. “And so we don’t really talk about net neutrality all that much. What we talk about are the social impacts of the web, the issues of justice, the questions of equality that arise. What we’re fighting for is an internet that’s open and fair.”

A key part of this strategy, says Renderos, is recognizing how important the web has become in the economy of the twenty-first century. “People utilize the internet today for everything from applying for a job, for work, for health care, to access government services,” he says. “The reality is that the way we interact with the technology today is more as a utility and not necessarily as an entertainment platform.”

This is particularly true for students and job seekers. According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, three-fourths of teachers now require students to download and submit assignments online; another 40 percent require students to participate in online discussions. A broadband connection at home makes high school students up to 8 percent more likely to graduate, the FCC said in a recent report. And more than four-fifths of Fortune 500 companies post job openings only on the web. The FCC’s proposed new rules, says Renderos, actually take into account “what the internet is today for most people.”

What Title II doesn’t do, however, is bridge a growing digital divide that amplifies racial and economic divisions in communities across the country.

Internet Access Supports Media Justice

At a time when having a basic web connection has never been more critical, only 18 percent of teachers say all or almost all their students have the digital tools they need at home — a problem that is correlated with students’ income. More than half of teachers say digital technologies are widening the gap between the most successful and least successful students.

Renderos says it’s low-income communities and communities of color who stand to gain the most from a free and open web that lets them bypass the inequities of traditional media, because having the capacity to start a free blog or a YouTube channel enables them to create media on issues that mainstream agencies ignore.

“Most marginalized communities would look at the way our media system is currently functioning and say, ‘it is not reflective of me,’” he says. “With fewer and fewer people owning our media, the less likely it is that it’s going to be reflective of the conditions and experiences of marginalized communities.”

Since deregulation in the mid-’90s, a series of mergers and corporate buyouts have left the lion’s share of American TV, radio, and newspaper markets in the hands of just six giant conglomerates (down from fifty in 1983). And the web is no exception: under a new definition of broadband, the FCC now says that Comcast’s proposed bid to buy Time Warner Cable would leave 63 percent of Americans with only one choice for high-speed internet. This level of consolidation has eliminated many of the smaller media outlets that used to report on the issues most relevant to low-income communities. It’s also pushed women and people of color out of media ownership. According to a 2012 FCC radio survey, blacks, Latinos, and women own a much smaller share of TV and radio stations than they did even just a few years ago.

“But it’s not just a matter of being shut out,” says Cyrus. “While some groups are excluded from the media, others are constantly talked about but don’t have their own voice. The way African Americans are portrayed in major media is predominately as criminals and as bad actors. It’s not just about exclusion; it’s also a question of exploitation and misrepresentation.”

Which is precisely why a strongly protected web is so critical today. Unlike more traditional platforms, the web gives users the opportunity to directly reflect their experience on their own terms, rather than let large corporations frame the conversation. “The internet is one of the very few decentralized platforms in which people are both active producers and active consumers of information,” says Renderos.

The Digital Roots of the Uprising in Ferguson

A dramatic illustration of what that kind of access can mean came late last summer during the civil rights protests in Ferguson, Missouri. “A lot of folks kind of point to Ferguson as a flashpoint nowadays but it took a million tweets coming out of Ferguson before CNN actually paid attention to what was happening,” Renderos says. And even when mainstream attention began to center on the Ferguson protests, following several days of online and on-the-ground activism, major media outlets like MSNBC and CNN continued to rely heavily on digital voices outside the corporate media system.

When events in Ferguson first began grabbing the nation’s attention last August, KARG Argus Radio’s live stream from Ferguson, dubbed I Am Mike Brown, was viewed more than a million times in just a few days, and footage later appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and countless other media outlets. In a similar vein, the Twitter feed of St. Louis Alderman Antonio French jumped from 5,000 to over 100,000 followers when the New York Times began relaying his coverage from Ferguson. Coverage like this demonstrates the tremendous social power of a free and open media platform — particularly on issues rarely given such attention in corporate media. If these protections didn’t exist, and it was up to big telecoms to decide what users could and couldn’t see, it’s hard to imagine a movement like #BlackLivesMatter reaching the number of people it has. “This is why fighting for net neutrality is such a vital thing for these communities,” says Renderos. “Because without it we don’t have a place where the names Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Denzel Ford, [and] Eric Garner mean anything to the general public. We don’t have a place to tell their stories.”

Digital technology even informed how the Black Lives Matter movement was organized initially and who had the ability to organize, says Cyrus. “When we look at Ferguson and the way actions were coordinated, the pace at which they were coordinated, that could not have happened without an open internet,” she says. Not only that, because of the online organizing and coalition building that had preceded Ferguson, the movement was able to give voice to groups historically excluded by social movements of the past. “For the first time in history, a black civil rights movement is actually centering the voices of women, queer communities, trans communities,” she adds, referring in part to the ongoing leadership of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the queer black women who created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and campaign that later went viral. “One of the reasons that’s possible is because trans people, queer people, and women can speak for themselves on an open internet. They can join in the conversation and provide leadership for the movement.”

Participation and access like this is a far cry from the movements of the 1960s, which depended heavily on mainstream coverage for visibility. Yet in another sense, the fight for an open web has everything to do with those earlier struggles, Cyrus adds. It was a 1964 federal appeals court case that made public participation in media a requirement for outlets licensed by the FCC — a requirement that today forms the legal basis for Title II protections. The case was over the way a Mississippi television station covered the civil rights battles being fought there, and what little role nonwhite residents had in shaping that coverage. Circumstances have changed dramatically since then, of course, but the basic demand for public input in mass media remains the same. And it’s undoubtedly a demand that goes far beyond the call for a free and open web.

Struggles on the Horizon

“Net neutrality is a critical step but it’s not the last step,” says Cyrus. “In many ways it’s the first step.” Although Title II is nothing if not a major victory, our media system remains deeply unequal and out of reach for millions of American voices due to the financial, political, and cultural investments of its gatekeepers. Even as the FCC moves to implement sweeping new web protections, it’s also weighing the legality of the Comcast–Time Warner Cable merger, one of the largest media deals in history. On that front, Renderos hopes that the momentum that the Center for Media Justice built for net neutrality could pave the way for another big win. The center has used popular education, grassroots organizing, and broad coalition building in its fight to kill the merger, just as it did during the fight for Title II. “This idea of fighting for net neutrality and fighting against the corporate gatekeepers of the internet has really laid some relevancy for people in terms of what’s at stake in the Comcast deal,” he says. “That’s the next big fight.”

Another battle on the horizon, says Cyrus, has to do with digital surveillance. Although, like net neutrality, surveillance is often framed as technocratic, even remote, it has very direct and immediate impacts on people’s lives. This is particularly true when it comes to local police forces’ use of surveillance tools like drones and “stingray” cell phone trackers, technologies that can keep detailed records of a suspect’s whereabouts and movements without their knowledge. Viewed in the context of mass incarceration and police brutality, such “predictive policing” measures are in danger of further criminalizing black and Latino communities, says Cyrus.

In spite of the victory on net neutrality, the ongoing battles against consolidation and surveillance underscore just how uncertain the internet’s social impact may still be. At once open and exclusive, empowering and controlled, the web remains a critical twenty-first-century battlefield. With much of the internet’s rules still unwritten, says Cyrus, “it’s up to us to decide whether the internet becomes the most powerful equalizer in the world or one of the most powerful legitimizers of inequality that this century has seen.”