Growing up, I loved pretending I ran a business and would create fake products. Some weekends, I would get on my computer and design a menu for that day’s “restaurant,” print it, and hand it out to my family. Other times, I would live out my dreams by playing one of the various Tycoon games I had (Rollercoaster, Zoo, Mall), where I could create different kinds of businesses from the ground up and be involved in every aspect from what was sold, to the design of the park.
Now there is a wave of digital entrepreneurship, which has been enabled due to the concept of Net Neutrality. The principle of Net Neutrality prevents Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from blocking, slowing down, or prioritizing some content over others. This is a critical piece to the way the Internet works, and is among the entry points for digital entrepreneurs and for individuals who want to bring their businesses online. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission enacted the 2015 Open Internet Order, enshrining these very principles. Yet, Chairman Pai announced last week the day before Thanksgiving that he wants to repeal Net Neutrality, handing over control of the Internet to the ISPs. It will have a significant and negative impact on the digital economy.
There are so many layers to debate, but commonly overlooked is the fact that the open Internet has opened the doors for entrepreneurs and creatives of color. I am one of those entrepreneurs that relies on the openness of the Internet. I was first exposed to Photoshop when I was thirteen by a friend. I enjoyed the ability to create art in this digital way, something I had never seen before. I had been interested in entrepreneurship from a young age but never imagined having the tools needed to start a business, especially as a young girl of color. Luckily, when I was fifteen I stumbled upon Society6, and it allowed me to create my own unique designs and sell them to anyone. I did not need funding to start the shop, manufacture the products, or advertise, because the website takes care of that. Society6 is able to exist because of an open Internet, helping thousands of creators start their own businesses.
There are other clear examples of how the open Internet fuels entrepreneurship, whether it is from crowdfunding through Indiegogo, opening their own store online through Etsy, or creating their own media online. As of October 2017, $1 billion has been raised for all projects on Indiegogo. One such project is Black Girls CODE whose mission is to increase the number of women of color in digital spaces by introducing programming and technology to girls of color aged seven to seventeen. Since its founding in 2011 it has opened doors for Black girls and changed the narrative of Black girls online. Before, a Google search for “Black girls” would autocomplete with negative terms like “dumb” and “ugly.” Today, “Black Girls CODE” is consistently in the top three search results. Idalin Bobe, former Community Manager and founding Staffer at Black Girls CODE explains,
“[W]hen we first started, no one was funding us. We went from foundation to foundation, they said ‘change your name. One word out of your name.’ Guess what that word was. Change ‘Black.’ . . . We raised on crowdfunding campaigns $125,000 to educate 3,000 young girls of color across the nation. That was the Net that did that.”
Another example of a platform that fuels entrepreneurship and tech-enabled micro-businesses is Etsy. Etsy is a global creative e-commerce platform. As of 2016, Etsy has 1.7 million active sellers across the world that have generated over $2.8 billion in gross merchandise sales. Etsy sellers are challenging the “conventional notions of entrepreneurship, and don’t conform to traditional images evoked by terms like startup, business owner, and entrepreneur.”
Opponents of net neutrality argue that without Net Neutrality innovation would increase, but it is the open Internet that has lowered the barriers to entry, giving underrepresented groups the opportunities to start their own businesses. Eighty-seven percent of Etsy’s sellers in the USA are women, as compared to only thirty-one percent of business owners. People of color are given a space online to create and sell that may be harder to attain offline and Etsy Artists of Color demonstrates that. It is a global collective of minority artists and crafters with currently over 1,600 members. New, unconventional ideas would remain unexplored if only concepts that had already been proven to bring a profit could exist.
Small business owners who sell their products and services online rely on their websites to bring in customers. Without Net Neutrality, they will stand no chance against large corporations. If Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T could force them to pay more to have a faster connection, many businesses would die before they had a chance to get off the ground. People of color already often lack the social and economic capital to build their own businesses and should not be relegated to a second-class Internet experience. Taz Ahmed, co-creator of the podcast #GoodMuslimBadMuslim, has said that the open Internet enabled her and her co-host to “work outside of mainstream media, outside of corporate structures of what media’s supposed to be” while elevating conversations between two Muslim feminists, viewpoints that ordinarily go ignored.
Currently, the docket is still open. It is critical that we make our voices heard and tell the FCC that the Internet must remain open to enable entrepreneurs of color to grow and prosper. The open Internet has enabled people of color to access new avenues to achievement and so we must ensure it stays that way.
Net Neutrality is Important for Entrepreneurs of Color was originally published in Latinx Mic on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
Gurupriyan is a Software Engineer and a technology enthusiast, he’s been working on the field for the last 6 years. Currently focusing on mobile app development and IoT.