The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is starting a new committee with a vague mission to advise the agency on promoting diversity in the communications industry, Chairman Ajit Pai said Monday in a prepared statement.
The new committee “will be charged with providing recommendations to the FCC on empowering all Americans,” Pai said. “For example, the committee could help the FCC promote diversity in the communications industry by assisting in the establishment of an incubator program and could identify ways to combat digital redlining.”
This announcement comes in the wake of alleged digital redlining by Cleveland-based community groups, Engaget reported in March 2017.
The groups, Connect Your Community and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), say AT&T provided faster broadband-connection speeds to wealthier neighborhoods than to lower-income areas in the city.
They allege that AT&T has purposely and “systematically discriminated against lower-income Cleveland neighborhoods in its deployment of home internet and video technologies over the past decade.”
The term “digital redlining” is an update of an older real estate term wherein lenders would refuse to loan money to people in low-income areas because they were deemed a financial liability. The technique was often used to segregate minorities and the working class from their wealthier white neighbors until it was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and again by the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. “When lending institutions have engaged in similar policies and practices, our communities haven’t hesitated to call it ‘redlining,'” the advocacy groups reported. “We see no reason to hesitate to call it ‘digital redlining’ in this case.”
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The FCC’s Pai said in his statement, “Every American should have the opportunity to participate in the communications marketplace, no matter their race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.”
The FCC wants members of the public to have input on who should be on the new committee, which will be named the Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment.
The FCC has had a digital diversity committee before, but it appears to have fizzled out, according to The Hill. The older committee, the Advisory Committee for Diversity in the Digital Age, has not held a meeting since 2013.
The mission of the FCC’s previous diversity committee was to make recommendations to the FCC regarding policies and practices that further enhance the ability of minorities and women to participate in telecommunications and related industries.
Digital redlining results in poorer communities being subject to more expensive and less efficient broadband capabilities than suburban and affluent neighborhoods, said Phillip Berenbroick, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, according to The Hill.
“Digital redlining and denying essential connectivity to low-income communities is contrary to America’s longstanding commitment to universal service and our values as a nation,” Berenbroick said.
The term “digital redlining” evokes the days when banks would draw a red line around areas of the city—typically places where blacks, Latinos, Asians, or other minorities lived—to denote places they would not lend money, at least not at fair rates The Nation reported in 2015:
“Just as neighborhoods can serve as a proxy for racial or ethnic identity, there are new worries that big data technologies could be used to ‘digitally redline’ unwanted groups, either as customers, employees, tenants, or recipients of credit,” a 2014 White House report on big data warns.
The FCC has not addressed the digital redlining allegations and it’s unclear what the new committee’s attitude will be toward it, or how much influence the board will have over FCC policy.
“Once the paperwork to stand up the Committee has been completed, the FCC will issue a public
notice soliciting membership applications and providing additional details about the committee’s work,” Pai said.
This isn’t the first time that AT&T has been caught being sneaky with its service offerings in the Cleveland area. In 2016, the NDIA sounded the alarm on AT&T’s practice of overcharging customers in areas where the company had yet to upgrade its network architecture. In 2015, when AT&T and DirecTV were attempting to merge, the FCC required that AT&T discount its service fee to $5 a month for low-income customers until the company upgraded its equipment. Instead, AT&T exploited a loophole in the requirement and continued to charge those customers full price even though their connection speeds didn’t top 3Mbps. It wasn’t until the NDIA brought this practice to light that the company announced it would comply with both the word and the spirit of the FCC ruling.
Pai’s announcement to form a new diversity committee comes less than a week after he pushed through a rule easing media ownership restrictions and making it easier for major broadcasters to buy local broadcast stations, The Hill reported:
Critics blasted the change, arguing it would hurt the diversity of voices in media.