When the Federal Communications Commission voted in February to adopt strong Net Neutrality protections, Chairman Tom Wheeler called it the “proudest moment” in his public policy life.
In Washington, it’s rare to achieve victories this big. And yet in the past year it happened twice. Millions of people spoke out in support of real Net Neutrality and against Comcast’s bid to take over Time Warner Cable. And the public won big on both issues.
At the center of these fights was a fundamental question about the future of the internet: Would it become a place ruled by corporate power — or would it remain a space for people to connect and communicate?
What the public wanted was clear: We should be free to do or say what we want online without the threat of censorship, blocking or discrimination. We should be free to find and share information about the issues that impact our lives and stay in touch with loved ones.
An internet without Net Neutrality — to say nothing of a Comcast-controlled internet — would have jeopardized all of this.
There’s usually a gulf between what the public wants and what the public gets in Washington. And the cable and phone industries are behemoths on Capitol Hill. They spend enormous amounts of money on campaign contributions to ensure politicians do their bidding — and for decades they’ve lobbied the FCC to pass industry-friendly policies.
Given this history, Washington insiders insisted that securing real Net Neutrality would be politically impossible. When the Comcast merger was announced, many of the same insiders predicted its inevitability.
Our work has been called an “unprecedented guerrilla activist campaign.” The Net Neutrality victory? A political miracle. Some said it was the “biggest internet-freedom victory ever.” Others called it the biggest public-policy victory since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Over the past few months we’ve been thinking about everything we learned in these fights over the fate of the internet. Many of these lessons will be useful to other movements confronting deep-pocketed foes — and overwhelming odds.
Here are our biggest takeaways:
People power is real. Too often the story that gets told is about powerful players brokering deals behind the scenes. But the powerful players in these fights were everyday people.
The people made the Net Neutrality win possible by elevating it over the course of a year online and in the streets. The people beat back Comcast’s merger by uniting and telling stories about how disastrous this deal would be for our communities.
Together, activists, organizers, artists, innovators, public-interest groups and internet users of all backgrounds took action and changed the conventional wisdom about what’s possible in Washington.
Collaborative coalitions heighten impact. No single organization or individual can do it all. By working with groups whose missions range from saving the environment to promoting small businesses, we were able to pool our resources and rely on each other’s strengths.
Some groups had large grassroots constituencies they could mobilize to show up at events. Others had legal teams able to make convincing policy arguments. Together we were able to tackle complicated threats and come up with creative solutions.
Racial diversity matters. We couldn’t have won either of these fights without the work of both new and longstanding civil-rights groups like 18 Million Rising, the Center for Media Justice, Color Of Change, the Media Mobilizing Project, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Presente.org. These organizations inspired activists and lifted up conversations about how vital the free and open internet is for communities of color.
The importance of Net Neutrality became apparent as news spread online and activists mobilized in response to police killings in Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland. The fight against police brutality and the growth of decentralized movements like #BlackLivesMatter depend on access to an open internet.
Stick to your principles. We were careful to stake out clear positions and stand our ground from the very beginning. We had specific demands for people to organize around, and our coalitions stuck together even when powerful interests said unacceptable compromises were “the best we could get.”
None of this is easy, but if you stand strong in the face of fake compromises you can win big.
Target the people who can give you what you want. Institutions don’t make decisions — people do. Activists needed to know that the people with the power to protect the internet were at the FCC, and that the most powerful person there was Chairman Wheeler.
And when our primary target wouldn’t listen, we went after secondary ones — urging members of Congress and others who had the chairman’s ear to carry our message for us. Shining a spotlight on a government official who didn’t expect it and an agency that isn’t used to this degree of public pressure changed the debate.
We also organized and rallied to get the attention of Wheeler’s boss, the president. And once Obama spoke out for real Net Neutrality, the political space was there for Wheeler to reverse course.
Build with champions. Years of working alongside key leaders like Sens. Al Franken, Angus King and Ed Markey as well as Reps. Anna Eshoo and Keith Ellison meant they had the facts they needed to advocate for Net Neutrality.
Not only did more members of Congress speak out for the open internet, but opponents got very quiet. As recently as 2010, more than 70 Democratic members of Congress opposed Net Neutrality, but in 2014 fewer than 20 signed anti-Net Neutrality letters.
And despite Comcast’s influence on Capitol Hill, the merger wasn’t a slam-dunk with lawmakers. Congressional Black Caucus members like Rep. Maxine Waters and Congressional Hispanic Caucus members like Rep. Tony Cárdenas spoke out about the dangers of a bigger Comcast.
Do your research. People in the halls of power need political cover and grassroots support to stick their necks out for a given cause. Political leaders also need facts and legal analysis to challenge the opposition. With the Net Neutrality and Comcast fights, we needed to present a compelling alternative to the broadband providers’ agenda.
Groups like Free Press and our allies put the facts on the table and debunked industry rhetoric with rigorous research. And this work didn’t start in 2014: The intellectual foundation was built over years and years.
Don’t be too serious. Camp out. Have dance parties. Bring along a giant Jumbotron. Wear costumes and cover the FCC’s front lawn with cats.
Things can get pretty intense when you’re fighting long odds, dealing with political landmines, unraveling complicated legal histories and mobilizing millions. It’s important to have fun and try unexpected tactics that grab people’s attention and influence decision-makers.
And don’t forget to draw the connection between your actions and your goals. We often rallied right outside the FCC’s doors so we could be sure to get Chairman Wheeler’s attention.
Exploit the public’s distaste for your enemies. It’s tough to find companies more hated than Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. These guys consistently rank at the bottom of customer-satisfaction surveys — and Comcast customers in particular have their share of horror stories (“Asshole Brown,” anyone?).
This made it easy to divide the battle into two camps: Team Cable and Team Internet. On one side: the entrenched, wallet-emptying gatekeepers. On the other: everyone else.
Independence is important. Independence from business, government and political parties can help groups challenge big companies and elected officials. More independent sources of funding are needed for public-interest groups of all stripes.
The internet is a powerful constituency — and we’re just getting started. Support for the open internet is overwhelming and ranges across the political spectrum. But it’s become a partisan issue in Washington.
In fact, right now members of Congress are trying to overturn the Net Neutrality win. What happens is certain to become a central part of the political conversation in the 2016 elections and the years ahead.
And this last point is relevant for all kinds of activists. People are using the internet to organize in ways we never dreamed possible, and the Internet is woven into nearly every aspect of our lives. All of us need to do what it takes to stay engaged — and keep this platform free and open.