Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel unveiled draft rules for addressing digital discrimination October 24 as she delivered the 41st Annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture. At the event, the United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry also honored Sen. Tammy Duckworth, (D-IL), and Dr. Alisa Valentin for their advocacy in support of important media justice issues.
In her remarks, Rosenworcel stressed that the new rules were intended to address not just those business practices that were discriminatory in intent, but also those practices that had a discriminatory impact. The regulations, which were mandated by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, will be considered by the commission at its November 15 open meeting. Rosenworcel highlighted the past efforts of the UCC Media Justice Ministry in highlighting electronic redlining 30 years earlier.
In her remarks, Rosenworcel noted that in 1994 when then-FCC chairman Reed Hundt delivered the Parker Lecture, media justice advocates had expressed concern that the new technology of “video dialtone” might lead to “electronic redlining,” in which minority and low-income communities would be bypassed when the technology was deployed.
She said, “You raised a red flag and at a time when just 6 percent of people in this country had begun to use the Internet, you made two predictions. First, interactive broadband communication was going to change everything. Second, if we did not get this right, we would end up with digital haves and have-nots. . . . You predicted the digital divide before the digital revolution was even under way.”
Rosenworcel noted that there was no evidence that broadband providers had engaged in intentional discrimination, but there were nevertheless gaps in access for low-income, rural, Tribal, and minority communities, and that digital redlining tracked redlining in housing. These disparities, she said became all the more apparent during the pandemic. The new FCC rules, she asserted, would create a “new, dedicated pathway for digital discrimination complaints.”
In closing, Rosenworcel credited Rev. Dr. Parker, who founded the organization in 1959 that became the UCC Media Justice Ministry, for changing the way FCC policies were made, enabling citizens to be involved in the process, not just the companies that the agency regulated. “That might seem obvious now, but it was revolutionary back then,” she said. “And it changed the FCC for the better.”
Duckworth received the 2023 Everett Parker Award for her advocacy that resulted in the passage of the Martha Wright-Reed Just And Reasonable Communications Act, which gave the FCC the authority to restrict the rates that telecommunications providers can charge for providing service to incarcerated persons. The legislation passed in the closing days of the last Congress, and the FCC is now drafting the rules to implement it.
Duckworth noted that before the law was passed, “one phone call from a correctional facility could cost about as much as a monthly phone plan,” keeping too many family members from staying in touch with incarcerated loved ones. Wright-Reed’s advocacy on behalf of her grandson represented “America at its best—a citizen refusing to be silent in the face of injustice and ultimately using her voice and her actions to galvanize the forces of change to right a long-standing wrong.” She added, “You can also see Dr. Parker’s legacy in every word. .. every line. . . . of this new law, which takes the ethical imperative of Dr. Parker’s work and applies it to our incarceration system.”
Valentin, senior director of technology and telecommunications policy at the Washington Bureau of the National Urban League, received the 2023 Donald H. McGannon Award for her efforts to bring more diverse voices into telecommunications policy making. Dr. Valentin explained, “technology and telecommunications policy intersect with one’s ability to dream.” “To many in this room, policy isn’t just a job; it’s personal,” she said. “At least, it is to me.” She explained, “we’re carrying every community who doesn’t have the same access and privileges as us into that room.” She invited the audience to follow her example, “What you can do is not only bring yourself into the room but look over to your neighbor and say, ‘I’m going to bring them too.’”
Duckworth echoed that sentiment. “We’re all here today because we believe in a very simple truth: that our fight for inclusivity has to, well, be inclusive of every sector of our modern world, from voting reform to educational reform, from environmental justice to — crucially — telecommunications justice.”
About the UCC’s media justice ministry and the Parker Lecture
The UCC Media Justice Ministry is the media justice instrumentality of the United Church of Christ denomination, which includes approximately 5,000 congregations and nearly three quarters of a million members. Rev. Dr. Parker was inspired by the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to reform television coverage of the civil rights movement in the South. The advocacy of OC Inc., UCCMJM’s predecessor, established the right of community members—not just corporate entities and licensees—to participate before the FCC and compelled the FCC to deny the broadcast license renewal of the pro-segregationist television station WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss., in 1969 for failing to serve the public interest.
The Parker Lecture was created in 1982 to recognize the Rev. Dr. Parker’s pioneering work as an advocate for the public’s rights in broadcasting. The Parker Lecture is the only program of its kind in the United States that examines telecommunications in the digital age from an ethical perspective.