The Federal Communications Commission has implemented fresh regulations aimed at eradicating unfair treatment in the availability of internet services, a step that regulators are labeling as the primary digital civil rights policy in the United States.
The commission approved a rules package on Wednesday that would give the agency the authority to examine and look into cases of discrimination by broadband providers towards various communities, taking into consideration factors such as income, race, ethnicity, and other protected classes.
The decree also establishes a structure for the FCC to address various digital inequalities, such as discrepancies in the provision of services for various neighborhoods. This includes the “digital divide,” a phrase used by experts to describe the complete absence of internet access that many communities face due to regional or socioeconomic disparities.
The head of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, stated that bipartisan infrastructure legislation passed at the beginning of the Biden administration mandated the agency to implement regulations on digital discrimination.
In a statement to The Associated Press, Rosenworcel expressed concern that the digital gap creates a disadvantage for our country’s economy and has a disproportionate impact on communities of color, low-income regions, and rural areas.
The speaker stated that broadband is a necessary component of modern society and these regulations will help in achieving universal internet access, regardless of a person’s identity or location.
Less affluent and diverse communities were discovered to have received inadequate funding for broadband infrastructure and were provided with less favorable offers for internet service compared to wealthier, predominantly white areas. This disparity in accessibility was particularly evident during the pandemic, according to the chairwoman.
Currently, there is no set guideline for monitoring disparities in the distribution of digital services. However, groups affected by discriminatory actions like redlining and lack of investment in rural areas have reported experiencing lower quality or complete absence of service. The FCC aims to simplify the procedure for reporting these problems in order to establish an official record of discrimination moving forward.
The regulations permit the agency to investigate if an internet service provider intentionally discriminated against a particular community in terms of constructing, improving or managing internet accessibility. They also establish guidelines for determining if a proposed service plan would result in a discriminatory impact that cannot be prevented through reasonable measures.
Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at The Brookings Institution, explained that the purpose of the law is to put pressure on internet service providers to prevent discrimination, but it also relieves states and localities from shouldering the same responsibility when they receive federal infrastructure funds.
The telecommunications sector has objected to the framework, stating that it could impede investments in communities due to unnecessary regulations. Following the vote on Wednesday, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the industry’s leading trade association, released a statement calling the new regulations “potentially illegal.” The NCTA also accused the FCC of attempting to gain broad control over all aspects of the broadband market.
The group stated that several well-established and consistent business practices may have varying effects on consumers of varying income levels.
The new regulations were praised by Free Press Action, an online advocacy organization, who urged the FCC to take additional steps by reclassifying certain elements of broadband in order to swiftly restore crucial oversight abilities for the agency to effectively fulfill its responsibilities.
At the FCC hearing on Wednesday, Commissioner Brendan Carr expressed concerns that the agency’s new policies could lead to lawsuits and hinder the operations of the telecommunications industry. Carr stated that the issue was not about discrimination, but rather about control. He also accused the industry of making a deal with the devil by supporting the bipartisan law and had previously referred to the framework as a way for the agency to gain more power.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks stated that disregarding disparate impact would have gone against Congress’s instructions to the agency. It is not realistic to think that we can eliminate digital discrimination by only addressing intentional discrimination. He also emphasized that the rules being adopted are not the final step in our efforts.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is preparing to reintroduce important net neutrality regulations that were revoked during the Trump presidency. President Joe Biden has stated that the funding provided by the bipartisan infrastructure legislation aims to provide all American households with reliable internet access by 2030, regardless of their financial status or personal background.
Christopher Ali, a telecommunications professor at Pennsylvania State University, expressed his desire for any disciplinary action taken by the FCC to ultimately benefit the discriminated community through fairer deployment opportunities.
“It will be challenging to place that order. However, we must ensure that the local communities are benefiting from these choices. I believe it’s not only about punishing these companies,” stated Ali, a member of the FCC diversity and equity working group discussing lessons learned from the pandemic.
“At this time, it is not certain how many complaints would prompt the FCC to investigate the issue,” stated Ali. “Therefore, community groups and local organizations may play a crucial role in addressing the matter.”
Matt Brown is a part of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity division. Keep up with him on social media.