The civil rights perspective regarding broadband access is severely misplaced. The narrative in general has been that access to information exchanged over a medium based on internet protocol is a civil right; an enforceable right or privilege guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution which when interfered with by another gives rise to am action for an injury. Civil rights belong to an individual by virtue of citizenship, especially the fundamental freedoms and privileges guaranteed by the 13th and 14th amendments.
The last time I checked the U.S. Constitution, there was no language in there that expressly supports my access to a communications medium powered by internet protocol. The Constitution didn’t even guarantee U.S. citizens access to communications networks powered by smoke signals, the telegraph, or even the telephone. One could argue that in today’s modern telecommunications world that the Communications Act of 1934′s mandate that the Federal Communications Commission ensure the a nationwide communications network universally accessible by all Americans creates that right. I would argue that it doesn’t and that the Act’s supporters in Congress got lucky in that the universal accessibility requirement of the Act was not challenged.
In some ways I’m surprised that Free Press or Public Knowledge have not turned the NAACP or the National Urban League’s “broadband is a civil right” argument into a “right to access a common carrier” argument thus buttressing their incorrect argument that broadband should be regulated as a Title II common carrier or public utility. Ironically some civil rights groups like ColorofChange.org and the National Hispanic Media Coalition support public utility-like regulation of broadband and could likely add fuel to Free Press or Public Knowledge’s positions. Unfortunately for Free Press and Public Knowledge their accusations that legacy civil rights groups are nothing but money-taking hacks for phone and cable companies has provided enough of a taint that most civil rights groups, no matter their position on net neutrality, would prefer stand closer to a spraying skunk that ally with Free Press or Public Knowledge.
Rather than risk getting to close to the edge of inadvertently pushing broadband into a common carrier box, civil rights should push a purer market-based consumer welfare argument when it comes to broadband in general and net neutrality in particular. Their policy statement should be that federal and state government should not interfere with a consumer’s choice to have certain content delivered to their broadband-enabled devices and recognize that the consumer can enter agreements with internet access providers and content providers based on the value the consumer recognizes in particular content.
Rather than push a civil rights argument that has consumers asking for the government to define access rights, civil rights advocates should take the position that the liberty of consumer choice is a given and that public policy should recognize and respect that.