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Tackling net neutrality through policy and critical race theory investigations

The issue of federal “net neutrality” — requiring internet providers to allow high-speed access to all content, rather than favoring their own content — remains one of the most hotly debated questions in the world of communications policy. But what about those communities that are still struggling to gain access to the internet at all? 

Rachel Moran.
Photo courtesy of: Rachel Moran.
Communication doctoral candidates Matthew Bui and Rachel Moran teamed up to explore this question, combining Moran’s policy expertise with Bui’s training in critical race theory.  Their recent paper, “Race, Ethnicity, and Telecommunications Policy Issues of Access and Representation: Centering Communities of Color and Their Concerns,” delves into three specific case studies of how advocacy groups for underserved communities — the NAACP, The Free Press, and the Tribal International Carrier — sought to make themselves heard in communications-policy debates on issues of access, net neutrality, and beyond.

“There are several digital divides,” Bui notes. “The first-order divide is access, the second is skills and use, and others are engagement and motivation — which all affect how you can use the internet for beneficial outcomes. And a lot of marginalized communities, especially low-income communities of color, can’t get basic, quality access.”

“If you are fighting to have access to the internet, net neutrality is one step beyond that,” Moran said. “You can’t worry about net neutrality until everyone in your community has access.”

Through their examination of the three case studies — the NAACP’s original opposition to net neutrality (a stance which has since changed), the campaign by Free Press to promote the liberalization of set-top rules, and the work of the Tribal International Carrier to build an internet service for Native populations — Moran and Bui showed how the structure of policy conversations marginalizes minority communities.

Matthew Bui
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“I think a lot of people were receptive to the paper because racial disparities and other issues of inequality are not well understood in communications policy,” Bui said. “Critical race theory is about how policy structures reinforce hierarchies of race. And as we were applying this to the communications arena in writing our paper, we didn’t feel we were being innovative at first, but we started to realize that nobody’s really done this type of research before.”

Their paper was not only published in Telecommunications Policy, it earned the 2018 Charles Benton Junior Scholar Award from the Research Conference on Communications, Information and Internet Policy (TPRC). 

Bui and Moran noted that their award-winning paper’s path to publication wasn’t necessarily a smooth one. “We had written what we thought was quite a normal academic piece and we sent it off for publication,” Moran recalled. “It got accepted to the next stage, but the peer reviews that we got back were terrible! I think perhaps it was because critical race theory was not something they had come into contact with before.”

“We got comments like, ‘This is a political manifesto, this is journalistic, and this is not academic enough,’” Bui said.

Despite the criticism from the reviewers, the pair weren’t willing to make drastic changes to their approach. “If we needed to present it in a way where it’s going to be palatable to policy people, I know exactly how to do that,” Moran said. “But that would completely corrupt the intention of paper, which is to illuminate something that happened and work towards a conversation that actually has impact.”

Both Moran and Bui are now working on their dissertations, in which the work they’ve done on their winning paper will play a large part. “We’ve gotten more dialed in to all of these existing activist networks that are already doing the work, so we both deeply consider how our work can have an impact and join in such efforts,” Bui noted. 

The process of collaborating on the paper and engaging with telecommunications activists from underserved communities has helped them “discover who we are as researchers,” Moran said. “We tried very hard to get across the point that everyone needs access to the internet. That’s why it was so great that we were able to go to the TPRC and receive this award: We could get people talking about it.”