Lately, cell phone companies have been trying hard to convince us that we control the airwaves. T-Mobile recently asked, "What do you want from your wireless company?" Verizon says we can "Rule The Air" with their service. These ads ignore that the airwaves already belong to the public, and that we are losing control, not gaining.
Verizon’s current “Rule the Air” campaign promises us a democratic world through their coverage. In the company’s “Prejudice” commercial, a series of racially diverse young women assures us that Verizon gives them full control of their voices, and is blind to race and gender. But as Jamilah King at Colorlines.com has written, even while people of color are leading adopters and innovators of mobile technology, they face barriers of cost, access and availability to even use the air, let alone rule it.
If these companies truly wanted their customers to be able to use the air how we please, we wouldn’t have to pay for services that we don’t use or be charged excessive fees for the services we do use. We’d be able to opt in or out of texting, voice and data plans, rather than having to purchase a bundle of all three. We would be able to customize our phones and use them with the carrier of our choice, rather than being locked to a single carrier that can control what software we use.
One organization in New Mexico has stepped in to remind Verizon and the rest of the country that air has no ownership. The Media Literacy Project , a media justice education and advocacy organization based in New Mexico and member of Latinos for Internet Freedom, says: “Free the air” in their video response to Verizon’s Prejudice commercial.
The Media Literacy Project’s video, Free the Air , challenges wireless companies’ promises that consumer needs and wallets truly matter. The minute-long video is an inspiring call to action for Latinos to exercise their power online and mobilize to demand that the Federal Communications Commission maintain its principles of openness for the Internet.
You don’t hear Verizon's “no prejudice” rhetoric when it comes to proposing federal regulation. The 25 billion-dollar company recently joined with Google to propose a regulatory framework for the Internet that would allow cell phone companies to prioritize some customers' transmissions and block others entirely. This means that companies would decide if and how quickly we could communicate with our friends and family, build up our small businesses or even engage in elections. Verizon has already shown it will use its control over text messaging to block political messages they deem “unsavory.” What will the company do with their power to block Internet communication?
Far from ruling the air, under the proposal wireless customers would be at the mercy of their service provider. The proposal would greatly undermine the Federal Communication Commission's role as regulator of the public airwaves and essential communication services. Verizon’s recent refund to customers of over $50 million in false charges is proof enough that without FCC regulation, companies would continue using their air power to rule our wallets.
Unfortunately, Verizon isn’t alone in pitching us the idea that companies actually care. T-Mobile's “We Listened” campaign tries to persuade us to believe our needs are important to the company. But their new G2 phone disables popular features of Google’s Android operating system. G2 owners who tried to re-enable those features by installing a different version of the operating system found that reconnecting to T-Mobile's network automatically restored the software to the T-Mobile version. If T-Mobile can overwrite our customizations like that, then it’s hard for them to say we rule the phones they sold us, let alone the airwaves.
Restrictions on cellular networks and mobile phones harm Latinos disproportionately, especially Latino immigrants who are significantly more likely to use cell phones than Internet via cable or DSL. Less than half of Latinos born outside the US use the Internet, while 72 percent of them use a cell phone, according to a report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Telecom companies like Verizon want us to forget that increased cell phone rates keep Latinos, and other marginalized Americans, from connecting with our families across borders and looking up important health information online.
They want us to forget that the true power of mobile technology comes from our creative use as a community, not from companies’ clever engineering. Recent Latino victories have made innovative use of the wireless Internet. Presente.org would not have been as able to mobilize to push Lou Dobbs off of CNN if companies had complete control over what we could say through our cell phones to our friends online. We wouldn’t have been able to sustain political pressure following Oscar Grant’s murder in 2008 if people could no longer afford Internet services on their phones. We may never have known of the murder at all if it had not been documented by bystander with a cell phone-video camera. Without the freedom to adapt mobile technology, day laborers in Los Angeles would not be able to share their journalism with the world.
Like we see in the Free the Air video, with a free and open Internet, students would be able to get their homework done at home, unlike the boy in Pajarito Mesa, New Mexico, who has to bike 17 miles to the closest library for Internet access. Latino small business owners would have the same opportunities online as everyone else regardless of how much they can pay to get access to digital literacy classes and online tools. All of this would be possible with a truly free and open Internet. Instead, the future telecom companies’ are trying to sell us puts them in control of how and where we use the Internet, complete with unnecessary and unexpected charges and outrageous bills.
Latinos for Internet Freedom, a coalition of over 40 local organizations nationwide including the Media Literacy Project, will not be short-changed with the future companies are selling. Freeing the air is about more than making wireless communication affordable, but about being able to define communication and the future of our online freedom. As Roberto Lovato has written, democracy has historically been defined by the “blending of our political destiny and the technological future.” That’s why Latinos for Internet Freedom is calling on the Obama administration, Congress and the FCC to stop corporations from taking over the Internet and to reclassify broadband as an essential communication tool.
In Free the Air, Media Literacy Project reminds us, “El aire y el Internet no se vende, se defiende” (The air and the Internet are not to be sold, they’re to be defended). The airwaves cannot be ruled. They belong to the public. We have only given companies permission to use them.
__ Andrea Quijada is the Executive Director of Media Literacy Project. Joshua Breitbart is the Senior Field Analyst for New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative.
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