The chair of the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) voted to end the 2015 Open Internet Rules on December 14.
The 2015 order provided the US with net neutrality rules that said all internet service providers (ISP) must treat all data the same, without blocking or “throttling” certain data streams.
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Detractors say the end to net neutrality will cause an increase of media centralisation, censorship and a rise in costs.
But the move will also deepen the “digital divide” between the wealthy and low-income communities, putting these people at a disadvantage in the race towards a digital future.
“Who’s being affected by this? It’s poor people, people of colour,” Nyasia Valdez, a 22-year-old with Detroit’s Equitable Internet Initiative in Southwest Detroit, a predominately Latino area also known as Mexicantown, told Al Jazeera.
For Detroit, where roughly 40 percent of the population is without internet at home – either broadband or mobile – the divide is deep.
The wrong side
Research by EveryoneOn, a nonprofit that works to close the digital divide, a term that refers to social and economic inequality in terms of internet access, agrees with Valdez.
“Low-income and minority Americans disproportionately find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide,” EveryoneOn’s website states.
The economic crisis in 2008, followed by Detroit’s bankruptcy in 2013, made ISPs decide the investment was not financially sound, according to Meghan Sobocienski, director of Grace in Action Collectives, one of the “anchor” organisations working with the EII.
EII aims to foster greater internet access for Detroit residents by creating wireless networks and intranets within communities in the city.
These intranets, private networks shared among a group, are created by linking 50 households, who are then able to share news, files and communicate among themselves.
Valdez says this form of communication has become integral to her and many others’ communities in the city, which has seen an increasing decline in public services since the economic downturn.
“If something were to happen in Detroit, if there’s a water shut-off or a fire or a natural disaster, [the intranet] is used as a communication system” to spread the news, she said.
The EII also installs routers for wi-fi access in these neighbourhoods, which has created new opportunities for entrepreneurs in Southwest Detroit who “have started their own businesses, whether it’s carpentry, laundry or food businesses”, Valdez said.
Pro-competition or increased profits?
Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman, said on November 22 that an end the government’s “heavy-handed” approach to internet regulation is a “pro-competitive” move that will help businesses and consumers.
Kathy Grillo, Verizon’s senior vice president and deputy general counsel, agreed in a November statement, saying the Open Internet Order “undermined investment and innovation, and posed a significant threat to the internet’s continued ability to grow and evolve to meet consumers’ needs”.
However, experts told Al Jazeera Pai has not presented evidence of greater competition and that a more expensive and limited internet experience, meaning more profits for ISPs is a possibility if net neutrality ends.
Detroit’s poverty level sits at nearly 40 percent, the same as the rate of disconnected households, according to US Census data.
Valdez said making the internet more expensive would further economically disadvantage these workers, and by extension, the entire community: “It would be so devastating and further exacerbate the inequality that’s already there.”
Chike Aguh, the CEO of EveryoneOn, told Al Jazeera that increasing poverty after net neutrality’s end is a concern not only for Detroit, but for cities and towns across the US.
“We have over 62 million Americans without internet at home. That’s about 20 percent of the American population, which is crazy for the country that invented the internet,” Aguh said.
The primary reason these 62 million people aren’t connected is the price of internet. “Cost is 60 to 70 percent of it,” Aguh said.
Then, concerns surrounding privacy, lack of training in the use of the internet and the user’s overall experience follow cost as barriers to internet usage.
Aguh said closing the digital divide is about making the internet “affordable, accessible” and providing an experience “as good as we’d want for ourselves and our own families … I think there are very few people who would argue that net neutrality’s end would make for a better user experience”.
Internet connectivity is important for alleviating poverty. EveryoneOn’s research shows that 94 percent of job recruiters use online means of finding candidates for work.
Aguh explained that minority and lower-income populations in the US experience joblessness at higher rates. With so many jobs recruiting online, the problem of unemployment is made worse.
The first step
Aguh said the vote to end net neutrality is the FCC’s “first step” in an effort to put the poor at a disadvantage.
The Lifeline programme, an initiative that began under conservative President Ronald Reagan, has offered subsidies on phone service to low-income since 1985.
The FCC agreed to expand the discounts to broadband internet connections in 2016.
This November, the FCC decided to “transform” the current $9.25 subsidy provided to low-income families in the US and the extra $25 for Native Americans living on Tribal Lands, where only 37 percent of households have broadband access, according to a 2016 Government Accountability Office (GOA) study.
The transformation would cap Lifeline’s budget, block national certification of ISPs for use in the programme and end the subsidy to “resellers,” telecommunications companies that sell plans which “piggyback” on major networks such as those of AT&T or Verizon and serve rural and Tribal areas, among other changes.
The justification used for the rollback was another GOA study that found “fraud and waste” in Lifeline.
Aguh recognised these concerns, but said none of these changes “would actually fix” these problems.
Furthermore, Lifeline’s expansion would aid an estimated 40 million people in connecting to the internet.
“Take that away, those are over 40 million people who will suffer,” Aguh concluded.