Essay

God in the Machine: The Role of Religion in Net Neutrality Debates

By | February 24, 2015

(Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty)

(Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty)

The public movement to protect a free and open Internet is approaching a critical moment this week: on February 26, the Federal Communications Commission will vote whether to pass strong rules against corporate control of the Internet. For years, companies that manage America’s access to the Internet—corporate giants like Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner—have sparred with activists and the FCC for control of cyberspace. Advocates on both sides have debated net neutrality, the notion that all information, data, and content online should be treated the same and equally accessible to all.

At stake is whether more wealthy content providers (think: Netflix) should be able to pay for faster service while smaller, less wealthy start-ups, or personal websites are left behind in an Internet gridlock. President Obama supports FCC regulation of net neutrality, and polling shows that the majority of Americans across the political spectrum oppose Internet service providers (ISPs) charging some websites more for faster service. Last summer, nearly 4 million people submitted comments to the FCC, most of them urging the agency to pursue stronger net neutrality protections.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s plan, which five FCC commissioners will vote on this week, proposes to reclassify the Internet as a public utility like water or electricity, using Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934, which could then treat the Internet as an unencumbered benefit for all citizens. This legal maneuver will enable the FCC to prohibit Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from censoring or prioritizing content or charging additional fees to some websites and video-streaming services.

The topic can be highly technical, and policy wonks, online startups, and public interest legal groups have understandably led much of the net neutrality movement over the past decade. But religious activists and organizers like us have also played a role in these changing debates. While largely Christian, religious groups have brought together strange bedfellows of progressive, faith-based activists and conservative religious organizations, from the Christian Coalition of America and the United Church of Christ to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. All have spoken out for net neutrality, even if they do not necessarily share arguments or coalition actions.

As high-speed Internet has grown from a novelty to an essential tool, communities of faith and conscience have come to rely on it for their media, organizing, and outreach. Religious messaging has framed net neutrality as a free speech issue for religious voices on both ends of the political spectrum; more recently, activists have also made the case that open access to the Internet is a civil rights issue for underserved populations and religious communities. Last April in The Daily Beast, the former head of Obama’s White House faith office, Joshua Dubois, envisioned a future without net neutrality protections: a small-time innovator, a young man from Detroit with tech skills and big ideas, cannot compete with big companies who can pay for faster and better Internet service. Last year, the Jewish online magazine ZEEK published an article advocating for net neutrality and noting that “small online magazines like ZEEK need #NetNeutrality.” Posts like these have cut through technical jargon to show that religious voices have a very real stake in net neutrality debates.

In the final months of 2014, a small group of lawyers, religious activists, and organizers launched the Faithful Internet campaign in order to collect video and written testimonials from religious leaders and community members about why a free and open Internet makes a difference in their spiritual lives. (Full disclosure: We are both Faithful Internet volunteers.) The project is managed by the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communications, Inc. (OC, Inc.)—a key operator in creating a movement around net neutrality. The campaign has included diverse voices ranging from North Carolina’s Moral Mondays leader, the Rev. William Barber; to Helen Osman, the secretary for communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB); to Valarie Kaur, a prominent Sikh activist and a central organizer for Faithful Internet.

According to OC, Inc. policy advisor Cheryl Leanza, the United Church of Christ (UCC), a liberal denomination, was working on “what was then called ‘open access’ principles for high speed Internet” as early as 2002, when the church’s media ministry filed comments on the subject with the FCC. Their goal was to serve as “a technically sophisticated, highly visible player in the narrow field of FCC regulation” and to be “a small but vocal proponent of prophetic Christian social justice.” In 2005, the UCC, along with the Christian Coalition of America, Gun Owners of America, and Moveon.org, joined a broad group of organizations from across the religious and political spectrum to be part of the Save the Internet coalition, which lobbied for legislative net neutrality protections.

Some conservative Christian organizations, such as the Christian Coalition, worried that a lack of net neutrality could silence minority conservative voices: “What if a cable company with a pro-choice Board of Directors decides that it doesn’t like a pro-life organization using its high speed network to encourage pro-life activities?” they asked on their website.

In 2010, when the FCC first proposed net neutrality rules, debates began to gain traction in the broader faith and politics advocacy community—with an eye toward advancing open Internet regulations for everyone, not just particular religious communities. In 2010, the National Council of Churches, representing more liberal Christian communities, released a comprehensive resolution in favor of net neutrality. They argued that access to the Internet was important for religious people and “network neutrality principles will allow the full diversity of voices to flourish.” Likewise, in a 2011 letter to Congress, the USCCB stated that American Catholic bishops supported net neutrality legislation and regulation to “ensure equal access to the Internet for all.” They added, “True net neutrality is necessary for people to flourish in a democratic society.”

Today, some conservative Christian voices are still speaking out in favor of net neutrality, although fewer than in the past. Last year, National Religious Broadcasters denounced religious censorship and its president has said that Internet providers should not be allowed to block content of which they disapprove. But the NRB does not endorse net neutrality or ambitious FCC regulatory measures, preferring a light touch approach that would limit the government’s involvement in the market.

In September of 2014, a coalition letter representing diverse religious groups, including the USCCB, the National Council of Churches, and the Islamic Society of North America, called for the FCC to promote net neutrality. Their message was threefold: “Strong net neutrality protections are critical to the faith community to function and connect with members, essential to protect and enhance the ability of vulnerable communities to use advanced technology, and necessary for any organization that seeks to organize, advocate for justice or bear witness in the crowded and over-commercialized media environment.”

One of the central concerns expressed in the coalition’s letter was whether religious voices may have to give way to well-funded entertainment and corporate speech—a well-founded fear. ISPs have fought regulations and have argued that they require flexible pricing strategies to continue to invest in costly Internet infrastructure and maintenance. In 2012 alone, the National Cable and Television Association, a lobbying entity of the country’s major cable and Internet providers, along with Verizon, Comcast and AT&T, spent more than $19 million to oppose measures to preserve net neutrality.

Understanding the uphill battle to challenge such well-heeled lobbying efforts, we and other organizers at Faithful Internet have turned from national-level coalition letters to grassroots organizing and advocacy. In our collected testimonials, individuals can offer their pleas for a free and open Internet. In one statement, David Gladston, a chaplain and counselor from a South Carolina Baptist church, says that an open Internet allows him to connect and “help my patients and clients face the end of their lives.” In another, Sara Fitzgerald, a clerk at a Virginia UCC congregation, writes that the Internet allows her church to reach out locally so “people find the kind of progressive Christian community we aspire to be.” From New York, Aaron Stauffer, who directs Religions for Peace USA, says an open Internet is crucial to his campaign to fight Islamophobia. He writes, “Sharing the stories of Christians and Muslims and Jews and Baha’I and Hindu and people of all faith, in text and video, would simply fail through any other avenue.”

Net neutrality has been more than a political debate, but an opportunity for religious organizations and activists to express their political identities with spiritual impetus. Today, the ideals of open access as an organizing tool and a civil rights issue are the driving forces for faith-based activists. On one hand, religious voices want to protect the faithful from real or perceived censorship, and they want to reach their own members online. On the other hand, they want justice for disadvantaged communities who may have limited or mobile-only access to the Internet. In particular, communities of color rely disproportionately on mobile devices to access the Internet, and by acknowledging that, many faith communities are hitting upon touchstones of their theological-political identities: service to the underserved and vulnerable.

With their theological tone and their push for Internet access for all communities, the faith-based, net-neutrality activists aspire to be descendants of the Civil Rights Movement, as religious-political connectors for grassroots engagement. Indeed, recently Civil Rights icon, Representative John Lewis of Georgia, took to Facebook to support net neutrality. He noted, “If we had the technology, if we had the Internet during the movement, we could have done more, much more, to bring people together from all around the country, to organize and work together to build the beloved community.”

These religious advocates for net neutrality are striving to protect the entire beloved community— online and off.

Emily Baxter and Aseem Mehta are non-residential fellows at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

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