Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Who Gets Heard? Internet Access, Verizon, and Net Neutrality



*Anyone know how to change the blogger settings so half of the videos aren't cut off?


"[Part of me feels that] Verizon is appropriating progressive rhetoric as a means of selling something. It just doesn't feel genuine." (Teenagerie)

I've seen this Verizon campaign in commercials and mainly now (since I don't have cable) via billboards in my local area. And like Jamie Keiles of Teenagerie (younger than me and smarter than me... sigh), I always had this off feeling about the commercial. Something about it left a bad taste in my mouth. So I went digging. What is this commercial really about?

The Ad

First of all, let's examine the commercial itself. Verizon shows us several conventionally attractive young women of mixed races spewing some pablum about freedom of speech and power of ideas, blah blah blah. As Rae from Chronicles of a Contradictory Queer noted:

There were 10 women who appeared to be straight up white, 2 women who could potentially be Asian-American, and 2 African American women (one of which who was used twice). I didn't see one woman with indicators of Hispanic, Indian, or Middle Eastern descent, not to mention the other races that weren't accounted for.

Why might that be? Because the Hispanics are stealing our resources and jobs, the Indians are stealing our jobs too because they "benefit" from outsourcing, and Middle Easterners want to blow us all up. It would be too controversial if you incorporated everyone, instead we'll stick to the binaries that keep us in this mess.

Additionally, as both Rae and I noted, the POC in the ad are all performing white socialization. No afros or dialects, no ethnic markers of any kind. Just some nice safe black and Asian girls.

Aw, that's nice though, right? Verizon supports equality! Just for giggles, let's check out Verizon's "Leadership Team": thirteen members, one woman. Verizon's leadership is 93% male and 93% white (counting Shaygan Kheradpir as non-white, though of course I don't know how Dr. Kheradpir would represent himself). (Found via Alexis Tsotsis at TechCrunch).

Hmmm, so maybe Verizon doesn't practice what they preach. And this is just a marketing campaign. So who's it aimed at? The obvious answer would be teenage girls.

Teenage girls are an interesting portion of society, ridiculed on one hand, revered on the other. Ridiculed, that is, for their intelligence, for their dress, for their slang, for their cell phone habits. Revered for their sexuality, their supposed closeness to the fine line between virgin and whore. Verizon is telling them here that their thoughts have value, and that the habit parents and school express concern about - constant phone and internet use - is actually important.

But note that there are no ugly chicks in Verizon's commercial. While Verizon is verbally suggesting rhetoric that goes beyond appearance, they are visually reinforcing the concept that beauty is equally as important.

Furthermore, the ad shows women who appear to have mid to high socioeconomic status, living firmly in the middle class. Women, therefore, who have access to education and to technology. And here's where Verizon's freedom rhetoric really seems to break down.

Many of my students grew up in situations where they didn't have access to education or to technology. This creates two barriers to Verizon's mythical world of digital equality: access to a computer, and ability to write effectively.

Computer Access

It is a no-brainer that people with computers and internet access tend to be disproportionately white and affluent. This phenomenon even has a name: the digital divide. The most recent statistics I have on this are from 2003, so perhaps this has changed, but I'll bet the overall trend remains the same. Statistics are based on a survey of 57,000 households. All stats come from here, see also here for tons of information regarding the digital divide.
  • 62% of US households have internet access. While this is a majority, that isn't by a very wide margin.
  • 43% of the total US population does not use the internet at all, and 75% of non-internet users do not have the internet at home. Many of these (42%) weren't interested in using the internet, but 23% said they did not use the internet because it was too expensive, and 23% had no computer or an inadequate computer available. Significantly, for those who had internet but discontinued it, 28% did so because the service was too expensive, and 27% had no or an inadequate computer available for their use. Only 18% of people who once had the internet but discontinued the service did so because they didn't need or use it.
  • Of the total population, gender is fairly equitable: 58% of men use the internet, as do 59% of women. But here's where the inequity begins.
  • 65% of the white population uses the internet. But only 46% of the black population does, and a shockingly low 37% of the Hispanic population.
  • 70% of employed people use the internet. Only 42% of the unemployed do.
  • Looking at income, there is a dramatic change in internet usage. For a family of four, the official poverty level is around 22,000$/year (source). Only 38% of households making less than 25,000 dollars per year are internet users. So let's estimate that somewhere in the neighborhood of 60% of individuals below the poverty line do not use the internet.
  • Looking at educational attainment, only 45% of individuals with just a high school diploma or GED are internet users. For those without even a GED, only 16% were. 20% of African Americans have no high school diploma.
So what? So minority status, educational status, and socioeconomic status have significant impacts on internet usage. The internet has the capability of being an equal-opportunity platform, but in reality this is not the case.

Education

Well, 14% of internet users don't have internet at home, and of course it is possible to use the internet at the library or a wireless hub. But even if you get on the internet, it doesn't mean your ideas will be heard.

As Pat comments on the Teenagerie post:
"The last sentence of this [Verizon] ad puts the bar really high: "if my thoughts have flawless delivery." And therefore, if I may draw a conclusion, if my ideas are not acted upon, it's because I've failed. I didn't deliver flawlessly.
Not only does this seem to indicate that womens' ideas will be accepted only if they are flawless, it reminds me of my students, men and women. I have plenty of smart students, I have plenty of capable students. Many of these students can barely string together a coherent sentence. Grammar, spelling, reading comprehension - sometimes I get essays that are written at a fifth grade level.

I continually berate the students who turn in good ideas written poorly: "Work on your grammar and spelling. People won't take you seriously if you have poor mechanics. They will use your lack of education as an excuse to tune you out. Your ideas are worth more than this." I correct their papers, I send them to the Writing Center, and I beg them to edit their own work, let a friend look it over, and most of all read and write more often.

Socioeconomics and race also have an effect on education and what a degree is worth. A student graduating from a middle-class high school may be a much better writer, reader, and speaker than a student from a school in an economically oppressed area. So who has the better chance of presenting a "flawless" idea?

In the end, Verizon's claims of non-prejudiced air just fall apart. But I don't think that was the goal of this advertising campaign. No, I think this is all a smokescreen to get the hipsters on their side and distract us from another issue swirling around the internet right now: net neutrality.

Net Neutrality

Well. You may have heard that recently Google and Verizon have joined forces to present a policy proposal regarding net neutrality. Basically, Verizon has agreed to support a neutral internet except for two things: "additional" internet services (for example, a special gaming channel offered by an internet service provider to its clients specifically) - and wireless internet.

Net neutrality is the concept that internet service providers will not exploit their own role in information delivery by suppressing other voices in favor of their own content or that of their business partners. The internet is supposed to be a level playing field where everyone's voice can be heard. This is entirely in line with the ethics of a company like Google, known for its slogan "Don't Be Evil".

Some have suggested that with this new net neutrality policy, Google may as well throw that fuzzy-sounding slogan out the window. Why? Because wireless internet isn't included. Wireless, the internet that we use in public places, and that many of use in our own homes (like me right now). As Google explains on its official blog, this is a compromise: net neutrality through wire-connected internet, non-neutrality over wireless. They give several reasons for this compromise, but to me it seems like this is the major reason (and I want to be clear that this is my opinion): Verizon wouldn't agree to wireless net neutrality.

So we have a company, Verizon, which has acted to restrict neutrality in a specific internet source. Non-neutrality means that Verizon can support its own content and that of its buddies, for example, generating ads based on search strings or keywords in your email (huge privacy issue, by the way). In a non-neutral internet, Verizon could muster its considerable power to even more effectively disenfranchise smaller operations.

Big corporations are always going to have the power to throw all the little guys around. So it's particularly ironic that Verizon, one of the biggest big guys, is running an ad campaign indicating its concern about the voices of the least powerful. Or is it?

Let's look again at the language of the ad.

"Air has no prejudice."

"Rule the air."

As the Google blog states: "...wireless networks employ airwaves, rather than wires..."

Verizon is courting the young hipster market. But it is also responding to a major public relations controversy and planting the image of Verizon as supporting a non-prejudiced, dare I say neutral, vision of the internet.

Verizon is acting to characterize the air as neutral in their ads, while working behind the scenes to ensure it stays non-neutral. It is in fact hiding behind the appropriated rhetoric of anti-ageism, anti-sexism, and anti-racism in order to cover over the truths of who really gets their ideas heard, and hide what the corporate policy truly is:

Anti-neutrality.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing about this! It reminds me of this video I saw on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qljbvTqScgY. Check it out.

    ReplyDelete