Diversity & Inclusion
Crime / Digital access / Education / Social justice

Philly Tech Justice is fighting for free internet access and against police surveillance

This Movement Alliance Project initiative organizes for new city policies and raises awareness via social media campaigns.

Cords. (Photo by Flickr user Santiago Cabezas, under a Creative Commons license)

Philly Tech Justice believes the internet should be a utility and not a luxury.

As the newest initiative of the Movement Alliance Project (MAP) — fka the Media Mobilizing Project, long known for internet access-related organizing — Philly Tech Justice is organizing to ensure under-resourced communities have access to wireless internet as well as fighting the use of surveillance technology by police in the city.

MAP Senior Policy Organizer Devren Washington works with about 15 colleagues on the initiative to pitch new policies to Philadelphia City Council members and raise awareness via social media campaigns.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the access needs of marginalized communities in a city where 16% of its residents, or about 98,500 people, don’t have access to the internet in their homes.

“After the shutdown started, we organized for internet access for people that need it and examined what the city is doing for people who need important information that are stuck in their houses,” Washington said. “If you don’t have the internet, you don’t have the ability to interact in the same way with your city councilpeople.”

#ParkingLotWifi is one example of a Philly Tech Justice social media campaign. While students in the School District of Philadelphia have received Chromebooks to facilitate virtual learning, many students’ homes don’t have internet access — leading, briefly in April, to the school district seeming to suggest they access free Wi-Fi from school parking lots. As a result, Philly Tech Justice is using efforts like its #ParkingLotWiFi campaign to pressure tech giant Comcast into providing free internet service for students (beyond its previous offer of two free months of its Internet Essentials program). A social media kit and instructions on lobbying local public officials are available on Philly Tech Justice’s website.

During a time of social unrest, Philly Tech Justice’s work to push back against police surveillance is especially salient. Following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, nationwide protests against police brutality have seen crowds of protestors collide with officers equipped with facial recognition technology like Clearview AI, which Philadelphia Police Department has recently tested.

Washington said facial recognition technology is more detrimental to Black and Brown communities since it is more inaccurate in recognizing their faces than those of their white counterparts. For protesters of color, the need for masks to help reduce COVID-19 infections may also be important in protecting them from facial recognition.

“Facial recognition technology was used at Super Bowl XXXV in 2002 in response to the terror attacks of 9/11 and has slowly been adopted ever since,” he said. “The first developing protocol for face recognition was actually created before 1965 circa the Civil Rights Movement and it parallels how we’re now having civil unrest and calling police to be defunded.”

Washington also believes devices like StingRays are examples of a dangerous surveillance technology: The devices act as cell phone towers and can make cell phones connect to them, enabling officers using them to track the cell phone users in real time. Pennsylvania State Police purchased StringRays in 2013, according to one news report (such deals are famously secretive). He’s concerned, too, about PPD’s Operation Pinpoint, which uses predictive models in policing.

Most of all, after the protests subside and the pandemic ends, the organizer is clear about one thing that he would like to see change for the long term: “My hope for Philadelphia is we get more local internet service providers that are actually responsive to community needs.”

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Media Mobilizing Project
Series: Racial Equity Month 2020

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