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Two Court Decisions and What They Mean for Communities of Color

January 15, 2014

This week, the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals ruled in two separate decisions that impact how communities of color communicate. The first decision affects what companies can charge individuals to stay connected with loved ones in prison. The second determined whether or not the internet will remain a neutral and open platform.


Last year, after over a decade of advocacy by prison reform advocates, and including more recent involvement by grassroots organizers, civil rights, and media and telecom public interest organizations, the Federal Communications Commission passed a long over-due petition that tackled the practice of exorbitant prison phone rates.  Before the FCC stepped in, these rates generated as much as $15 for a single 15-minute call.

Earlier this week the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals ordered a stay on these rules. While their decision upheld what public interest advocates consider the most important part – mandating that prison phone providers charge no more than .25 per minute for debit calls, and .21 per minute for collect calls – other provisions intended to protect families and loved ones of prisoners are stayed.

The provisions that were stayed include mandating that services provided by prison phone companies be cost based, and the “safe harbor” rates of .12 and .14 per minute. Provisions that could extend further relief to the families of the almost 2.3 million individuals behind bars today. As it stands now, communities of color are disproportionately impacted by incarceration in the U.S. 1 in every 3 African American males, and 1 out of every 6 Latinos will likely experience incarceration during their lifetime, with the burden of paying for the high costs of calls falling on their families.

Yesterday, that same court ruled against the FCC’s authority to uphold its Open Internet rules. The Open Internet rules were intended to protect consumers and content providers alike from potentially harmful business practices of internet service providers.  In a worse case scenario, companies like Verizon, which deliver internet access to millions of Americans, would be able to cut deals with companies for prioritizing placement of their content.  Inevitably, this would require excluding other companies who can’t afford to pay for competitive placement, placing a barrier for startups and independent creators.

This is a dangerous scenario for communities who are already underrepresented in traditional media, including broadcast television and radio. The internet, when accessible, can serve as a great equalizer for creators, activists, artists, musicians, and educators of color who are able to reach new audiences online. Business practices that create different levels of access have a higher likelihood of negatively impacting communities that depend on alternative media.

Demanding fair access to an open internet should not put communities at odds with big business. In attempting to restructure a platform designed for sharing information, businesses are putting profits ahead of everything else. Changing the open structure of the internet is a challenge to those who benefit from access to an open platform of communication.

As consolidation continues in the media and telecom industry, consumers are left with less choice of how they access and distribute content. The prison phone market is an example of what happens when markets lack competition, and harm those who can least afford their services. A dismissal of net neutrality rules can lead to an internet where users are limited to only accessing the portions they can afford. Now is time more than ever for the public to voice their concern over the direction of communications policy and to be involved in reshaping its outcome.