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A free and open Internet for all [Commentary]

From ice bucket challenges to the upcoming midterm elections, we are reminded again and again how the Internet has changed the way we live and connect and organize. Digital equality has become fundamental to economic, cultural and political equality. Until this year's Oscar "selfie" by Ellen DeGeneres, the most tweeted picture in our history was the re-election photo of President and Mrs. Obama embracing.

But the more important the Internet becomes, the more critical it is that this digital public square be open to all — if we've learned anything in recent years, it's that authorities are far too quick to shut down protests, silence journalists or even lock down communities when it serves them. That's why the debate in Washington, D.C., over open Internet rules is so important — we need a free and open Internet that serves the entire community, not just a handful of elites or the wealthy few.

But not everyone agrees how best to achieve this. Most civil rights groups want to empower the Federal Communications Commission to use its traditional powers — called their "Section 706" authority — to pass new rules to quickly and with certainty protect the open Internet right now. A few activists in the technology community disagree — they want a more radical, and risky, approach that would convert the Internet to a public utility and regulate it like the old telephone system. This "common carrier" approach would take longer and, in my view, bring unwelcome side effects like slowing down investment in new networks and weakening the Federal Trade Commission's protection of consumers.

But unfortunately, instead of having this debate on the merits, some critics want to make it personal, claiming that civil rights groups taking the Section 706 position are in the pocket of Internet service providers (ISPs) who also support this approach. That kind of personal attack tears us apart when what we need is a debate on the merits that brings us together.

It is no secret that the civil rights community has enjoyed a long relationship with ISPs based on the industry's investments in our communities, job creation and, from some companies, the provision of much needed services on an equal basis for minorities and the poor. Most of the ISPs have robust programs for broadband adoption and closing the digital divide. And many ISPs have led the way in diversity hiring — employing over 1 million people of color today. Should ISPs do more? Yes, and civil rights leaders are demanding they do even more, notwithstanding this history of support.

So when critics say that the civil rights community and the ISPs have a close relationship, I again respond by saying "yes they do." And that's because ISPs have invested in the success of many of these organizations and their work to serve our communities, recognizing the value our community has to their industry.

It's easy for self-righteous critics to point fingers when they have nary invested a dime to actually bring new technologies to our consumers or invested in the cause of diversity and inclusion. But the reality is that the old common carrier regulations are not needed to protect the open Internet. We need a regulatory structure that will incentivize job creation, provide more affordable services and protect consumers — Section 706 accomplishes this simply and with certainty.

Many in the civil rights community have different interests and ideological positions than their critics on this issue; wanting both an open Internet and the massive private investment that will be needed to close the digital divide and create jobs. Some of the very organizations criticizing the civil rights organizations invest far less in communities of color and have less diversity in their institutional hierarchy than the ISP's they demonize.

We as a community are not monolithic, and that's healthy when it encourages debate on the issue, but it's dangerous when it devolves into demonization and name calling based on who shares positions or who has funded an after-school program or bought a table at a dinner. I respect some of the organizations that have challenged the civil rights organizations, but the name-calling needs to end. Instead we should focus debate on the merits — have the courage of your convictions and don't hide behind slurs and slander.

I, like many civil rights organizations, believe that regulators should aggressively protect the open Internet and simultaneously promote policies that help the U.S. bridge the digital divide and create jobs for African Americans and all minorities. Do any of the critics really disagree with that?

Jeff Johnson is a former NAACP outreach director and Baltimore-based BET commentator. His email is Jeff@illumecomm.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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