Why LGBT Communities and Our Allies Should Care about Net Neutrality

topic_net-neutrality

It’s easy to forget the larger, community benefits of an Open Internet that doesn’t discriminate based on the content flowing through the fiber (or however it gets to you). But let’s get specific. How does this open network nurture and support underserved and marginalized LGBT communities and why does something like Net Neutrality matter to our future?

Earlier this year, The LGBT Technology Partnership released research that I co-authored with media scholar and sociologist Jessie Daniels. In it, we lay out the reasons that LGBT-identifying individuals and our communities became early adopters of broadband technology and why the Internet continues to play such a pivotal part in our political and social lives. Maintaining Net Neutrality–keeping all information equally accessible on the Internet–is something that all LGBT-identifying people and our allies should care about and fight to maintain.

I have researched the Internet’s role in LGBT life for more than a decade. I study how and why LGBT-identifying young people and youth questioning their identities use the Internet and other media. There are 2 main reasons that marginalized communities, including LGBT people, use the Internet more than the typical U.S. citizen: 1) we are able to go online and connect to people we identify with, without having to battle the stigma and potential physical threat that comes with accessing LGBT-supportive physical spaces and 2) we are able to access services and information specifically for us–from dating sites to health information–tailored to our needs…not just a clumsy version of what’s made available to our heterosexual peers.

Let me give 2 concrete examples from my fieldwork among LGBT youth in rural towns throughout Southeast Appalachia. When Brandon, a young person living in Eastern Kentucky, wanted to find other young African-American, bi-identifying people to talk with about the pros and cons of coming out before turning 18, he literally knew no one and found no organizations in his town of 5,000 where he could meet other out, bi-identifying youth. He went online and found chat rooms for his region. All of them were dominated by adults. He had to spend a significant amount of time, searching through various websites and YouTube videos to access other kids his age to talk with. In a perfect world, he wouldn’t need to work so hard to find someone just like himself online and he’d have neighbors and friends in his high school to turn to for support. But there’s no critical mass of LGBT-identifying people in his home town (yet! We can hope that changes for him). That makes the Internet an important communication channel connecting him to a broader community of LGBT-identifying folks. But the Internet is not just for accessing other LGBT-identifying people online.

As I said, the Internet has become a vital resource for accessing information specifically tailored to us. So, for example, many of the towns I worked in had no LGBT-specific public health services or HIV prevention information available for LGBT-identifying youth. That meant braving the school nurse or walking into a local health clinic and talking with someone who they could not assume to be an advocate for LGBT rights. Adults in big cities like DC might struggle with doing that. Imagine being a 14 year old in a very small town doing that. Youth I work with depend on web-based resources, like Trevor Project, Advocates for Youth, YouTube, and other non-profits that list resources for LGBT-specific health information. The Internet is a vital communication and information channel. The presumption that heterosexuality is the default setting makes the Internet a precious resource for LGBT-identifying people. LGBT and questioning youth in particular need places for them and information written for them readily available. It’s not a perk. The Internet has become a basic need and a public good.

From my perspective, the Net Neutrality debate is important to LGBT communities because, simply put, LGBT-identifying people will be collateral damage if Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are allowed to discriminate among content, apps, or services. without Net Neutrality protections, content providers generating critical information would likely have to pay more to get their content into (and from!) the hands of LGBT people. That means ISPs become the defacto gatekeepers controlling what content survives and what content falls by the wayside in the wake of a market-driven content tsunami. This, in turn, will raise the cost of providing LGBT content, reducing the overall amount of LGBT content available. This will be a significant barrier to the non-profit sources of content that have proven critical to LGBT communities, including information provided by the U.S. Government.

Net Neutrality is a simple principle: don’t make it harder to access or download something on the Internet based on the content of that information or service. Individuals, not our Internet Service Providers, should determine the information that they can access online. ISPs should not be legally allowed to block content or limit a private citizen’s opportunity to see what information is available online for them to purchase or made available to them for free.

Like broadcast TV, phones, and libraries, the Internet plays a special and critical role in connecting and educating citizens. I wish that every public school, community center, and local radio and public access TV station offered a wealth of LGBT-specific resources. They do not. The Internet, currently, picks up this important duty for the public.

Right now, like all citizens, LGBT people and our allies have the basic right to access any information available on the Internet. LGBT-specific information on the Internet–from other young people’s websites to the It Gets Better campaign on YouTube–can be vital to LGBT lives, particularly young people looking for affirmation and reflections of themselves. LGBT-specific information is typically hosted or created by non-profits and private individuals who care about LGBT people’s needs. In the same way that it should not be harder at the public library to see the stack of books most relevant to LGBT communities, it shouldn’t be harder or cost more to access information specific to LGBT communities.

The providers of Internet access are not just delivering binge TV through Netflix. They are serving up those webpages that LGBT-identifying and questioning young people rely on to survive and thrive. As much as I love the entire catalogue of Queer as Folk, it is not the same content–and cannot do the same vital community-building work–as coming out videos accessible on YouTube or HIV prevention information, local resource lists, and opportunities to access other LGBT-identifying people available through non-profit websites. If ISPs are allowed to sort content differently, those random, youth-created and driven websites that offer crucial, eclectic information to small, niche audiences, are, potentially, at risk of being lost to us. I don’t think we, as LGBT people and allies, can afford that loss.

On Monday November 10, 2014, President Obama made a statement outlining four “bright-line rules” for maintaining Net Neutrality, including no blocking, no throttling, increased transparency and no paid prioritization. I wish that we could achieve keeping content equally accessible without regulation. I sincerely do. But, right now, all we have are promises from the Internet service provider’s major companies that they will not block content, throttle download/upload rates, decrease transparency behind their billing or let content owners pay ISPs to “cut to the front of the line” of the information buffet that is the Internet.

There are several cases, dating back to the beginning of the content-rich web of the mid-2000s, that suggest Internet service providers will block or slow down content delivery and price some content differently to keep competition at bay. There are 3 options: 1) make it illegal for Internet service providers to discriminate among content, apps, or services online or 2) fund municipal broadband for every community in the United States so that all citizens have access to the Internet’s content or 3) do both 1 and 2 and let the market and innovations, like playing with unlicensed spectrum, handle the rest. The Internet operates as a public good. We need it to register for many government services at this point. We can’t go back and say, “Internet content and services are just extras that society can do without.” We’ve got to have clear guidance and enforceable rules to maintain the deep investments we’ve already made in making the Internet one of the world’s greatest information repositories and sites for community connection, particularly among communities, like those of LGBT folks, with limited resources and social opposition offline.

Having worked in the rural U.S. for some time, my sense is that the best solution for ensuring an open Internet is by recognizing what ISPs have become: stewards of a critical public resource. We use our Internet connections to talk to people, pay our parking tickets, and make appointments to get our drivers licenses. LGBT communities use Internet connections to reach people like them and share strategies on how to move through a world that still can’t decide if we have the right to marry the people we love. Those are services and information resources necessary for a robust and healthy civic and civil society. It’s too late to treat the Internet like an expendable, frivolity. LGBT communities are particularly dependent on the Internet to find and connect with the people and information that we need to live healthy and productive lives. What can you do about all of this? Get the facts, advocate for a free and open Internet to your local representatives, and support your local LGBT activists creating content that reflects the richness and diversity of our lives and communities.

Cross-posted to http://marylgray.org | Image Source

Digital In/Justice

I want to recommend a new post at Culture Digitally, “Digital In/Justice,” both because it may be of interest to the readers of this blog, and because it features Microsoft Research’s Mary Gray. Culture Digitally arranges occasional dialogues, in which two or more scholars go back and forth in conversation on a topic they are just working out in their own mind. It’s meant as a chance to make visible the raw development of ideas, unpolished and engaging. In this one, Mary Gray and Nick Couldry (King’s College, London) tried to develop their idea of “digital injustice,” offering an opportunity to rethink issues like the digital divide, equitable access, voice and opportunity, and the institutional environment necessary for such issues of equity to be addressed and protected. It is at once philosophical and quite personal, and I hope those of you who want new ways to think about digital media and the ethics of public participation will find intriguing ideas in it.

For instance, here’s a tiny clip, a comment by Mary:

Yes, cutting off access to an individual’s capacity to contribute to cultural dialogue and deliberation is, arguably, a case of injustice. But this formulation presumes or, at least, prioritizes individual autonomy and agency as the (pre-public/pre-mediated?) source of voice. If negotiation and articulation of the self are collective acts… then the greater injustice is not the loss of individual access to media as sites of personal narrative and expression. The more pressing injustice is that such a loss forecloses the use of media as processes of contribution, deliberation, contestation, and play in the social construction of the self — from the well of possibilities of a future articulation of self. Simply put, I’m interested in prioritizing information and technology access as a precious cultural resource…

And one from Nick, later in the conversation:

Is this where privatized conditions of digital discourse… bite most, in undercutting the common spaces of debate where claims of social injustice might be made, heard and recognised, and by distributing unequally access to the discursive resources that enable some to command general attention? If so, then I would like to add to your interesting conception of digital media as a ‘space of possibles’ the idea that such a space must allow to be heard and registered claims for the redistribution of ‘actuals’.

Reflecting on Dharun Ravi’s conviction

On Friday, Dharun Ravi – the Rutgers student whose roommate Tyler Clementi killed himself – was found guilty of privacy invasion, tampering with evidence, and bias intimidation (a hate crime). When John Palfrey and I wrote about this case three weeks ago, I was really hopeful that the court proceedings would give clarity and relieve my uncertainty. Instead, I am left more conflicted and deeply saddened. I believe that the jury did their job, but I am not convinced that justice was served. More disturbingly, I think that the symbolic component of this case is deeply troubling.

In New Jersey, someone can be convicted of bias intimidation for committing an act…

  1. with the express purpose of intimidating an individual or group…
  2. knowing that the offense would cause an individual or group to feel intimidated…
  3. with which the individual or group on the receiving end believes that they were targeted…

… because of their race, color, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

In Ravi’s trial, the jury concluded that Ravi neither intended to intimidate Clementi nor believed that his acts would make Clementi feel intimidated because of his sexuality. Yet, the jury did conclude that, based on computer evidence, Clementi probably felt intimidated because of his sexuality.

As someone who wants to rid the world of homophobia, this conviction leaves me devastated. I recognize the symbolic move that this is supposed to make. This is supposed to signal that homophobia will not be tolerated. But Ravi wasn’t convicted of being homophobic, but, rather, creating the “circumstances” in which Clementi would probably feel intimidated. In other words, Ravi is being punished for living in a culture of homophobia even though there’s little evidence to suggest that he perpetuated it intentionally. As Mary Gray has argued, we are all to blame for the culture of homophobia that has resulted in this tragedy.

I can’t help but think of Clementi’s parents in light of this. By all accounts, their reaction to their son’s confession that he was gay did more to intimidate Clementi based on his sexuality than Ravi’s stupid act. Yet, I can’t even begin to imagine that the court would charge, let alone convict, Clementi’s distraught parents of a hate crime. ::shudder::

I can’t justify Ravi’s decision to invade his roommate’s privacy, especially not at a moment in which he would be extremely vulnerable. I also cannot justify Ravi’s decision to mess with evidence, even though I suspect he did so out of fear. But I also don’t think that either of these actions deserve 10 years of jail time or deportation (two of the options given to the judge). I don’t think that’s justice.

This case is being hailed for its symbolism, but what is the message that it conveys? It says that a brown kid who never intended to hurt anyone because of their sexuality will do jail time, while politicians and pundits who espouse hatred on TV and radio and in stump speeches continue to be celebrated. It says that a teen who invades the privacy of his peer will be condemned, even while companies and media moguls continue to profit off of more invasive invasions.

I’m also sick and tired of people saying that this will teach kids an important lesson. Simply put, it won’t. No teen that I know identifies their punking and pranking of their friends and classmates as bullying, let alone bias intimidation. Sending Ravi to jail will do nothing to end bullying. Yet, it lets people feel like it will and that makes me really sad. There’s a lot to be done in this realm and this does nothing to help those who are suffering every day.

The jury did its job. The law was followed. I have little doubt that Ravi did the things that he was convicted of doing. But I am not celebrating because I don’t think that this case made the world a better place. I think that it simply destroyed another life.

Stop the Cycle of Bullying

[John Palfrey and I originally wrote this as an op-ed for the Huffington Post. See HuffPo for more comments.]

On 22 September 2010, the wallet of Tyler Clementi – a gay freshman at Rutgers University – was found on the George Washington Bridge; his body was found in the Hudson River the following week. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, was charged with 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, and tampering with witnesses and evidence tampering. Ravi pleaded not guilty.

Ravi’s trial officially begins this week, but in the court of public opinion, he has already been convicted. This is a terrible irony, since the case itself is about bullying.

Wading through the news reports, it’s hard to tell exactly what happened in the hours leading up to Clementi’s suicide. Some facts are unknown. What seems apparent is that Clementi asked Ravi to have his dormroom to himself on two occasions – September 19 and 21 – so that he could have alone time with an older gay man. On the first occasion, Ravi appears to have jiggered his computer so that he could watch the encounter from a remote computer. Ravi announced that he did so on Twitter. When Clementi asked Ravi for a second night in the room, Ravi invited others to watch via Twitter. It appears as though Clementi read this and unplugged Ravi’s computer, thereby preventing Ravi from watching. What happened after this incident on September 21 is unclear. A day later, Clementi’s body was discovered.

The media-driven narrative quickly blamed Ravi and his friend Molly Wei, from whose room Ravi watched Clementi. Amidst a series of other highly publicized LGBT suicides, Clementi’s suicide was labeled as a tragic product of homophobic bullying. Ravi has been portrayed as a malicious young man, hellbent on making his roommate miserable. Technology was blamed for providing a new mechanism by which Ravi could spy on and torment his roommate. The overwhelming presumption: Ravi’s guilty for causing Clementi’s death. Ravi may well be guilty of these crimes, but we have trials for a reason.

As information has emerged from the legal discovery process, the story became more complicated. It appears as though Clementi turned to online forums and friends to get advice; his messages conveyed a desire for getting support, but they didn’t suggest a pending suicide attempt. In one document submitted to the court, Clementi appears to have written to a friend that he was not particularly upset by Ravi’s invasion. Older digital traces left by Clementi – specifically those produced after he came out to and was rejected by those close to him – exhibited terrible emotional pain. At Rutgers, Clementi appears to have been handling his frustrations with his roommate reasonably well. After the events of September 20 and 21, Clementi appears to have notified both his resident assistant and university officials and asked for a new room; the school appears to have responded properly and Clementi appeared pleased.

The process of discovery in a lawsuit is an essential fact-finding exercise. The presumption of innocence is an essential American legal principle. Unfortunately, in highly publicized cases, this doesn’t stop people from jumping to conclusions based on snippets of information. Media speculation and hype surrounding Clementi’s suicide has been damning for Ravi, but the incident has also prompted all sorts of other outcomes. Public policy wheels have turned, prompting calls for new state and federal cyberbullying prevention laws. Well-meaning advocates have called for bullying to be declared a hate crime.

As researchers, we know that bullying is a serious, urgent issue. We favor aggressive and meaningful intervention programs to address it and to prevent young people from taking their lives. These programs should especially support LGBT youth, themselves more likely to be the targets of bullying. Yet, it’s also critical that we pay attention to the messages that researchers have been trying to communicate for years. “Bullies” are often themselves victims of other forms of cruelty and pressure. Zero-tolerance approaches to bullying don’t work; they often increase bullying. Focusing on punishment alone does little to address the underlying issues. Addressing bullying requires a serious social, economic, and time-based commitment to educating both young people and adults. Research shows that curricula and outreach programs can work. We are badly underfunding youth empowerment programs that could help enormously. Legislative moves that focus on punishment instead of education only make the situation worse.

Not only are most young people often ill-equipped to recognize how their meanness, cruelty, and pranking might cause pain, but most adults are themselves are ill-equipped to help young people in a productive way. Worse, many adults are themselves perpetuating the idea that being cruel is socially acceptable. Not only has cruelty and deception become status quo on TV talk shows; it plays a central role in televised entertainment and political debates. In contemporary culture, it has become acceptable to be outright cruel to any public figure, whether they’re a celebrity, reality TV contestant, or teenager awaiting trial.

Tyler Clementi’s suicide is a tragedy. We should all be horrified that a teenager felt the need to take his life in our society. But in our frustration, we must not prosecute Dharun Ravi before he has had his day in court. We must not be bullies ourselves. Ravi’s life has already been destroyed by what he may or may not have done. The way we, the public, have treated him, even before his trial, has only made things worse.

To combat bullying, we need to stop the cycle of violence. We need to take the high road; we must refrain from acting like a mob, in Clementi’s name or otherwise. Every day, there are young people who are being tormented by their peers and by adults in their lives. If we want to make this stop, we need to get to the root of the problem. We should start by looking to ourselves.

danah boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and a research assistant professor at New York University. John Palfrey is a professor of law at Harvard Law School.