Monday, October 30, 2017

Breaking ideological gridlock from the bottom up

Originally published at On a cold Thursday morning in January, a small group of advocates gathered outside the imposing edifice of the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C. They opened the trunk of a red Ford Fusion parked nearby and began unloading more than 20 white banker’s boxes. Within minutes, they had assembled a makeshift cardboard podium. Inside the boxes were more than a million signatures collected in just two weeks from people across the country. Each person had signed an online petition urging the FCC to protect Net Neutrality, the democratic principle that ensures the internet remains free and open and prohibits the companies that control high-speed internet access from blocking or throttling content.
After delivering a few speeches before a crowd of activists, Net Neutrality advocates delivered the petitions to the FCC.
This was just one small moment in years of activism both online and in the streets. Over the past decade, the once-obscure issue of Net Neutrality now draws support from tens of millions of people of every ideological stripe. It’s an issue about control of new media that at the grassroots level bridges political differences. And while open-internet protections are now under threat in Washington — where too many policymakers cater to the needs of the cash-rich phone and cable lobby — people beyond the reach of the capital’s influence industry remain united.
United behind an open internet

At a very basic level Net Neutrality proponents believe that the companies that provide internet access shouldn’t be control the types of information that flow across the network on to the screens of our cellphones, tablets, laptops and home computers. Maintaining an open internet is as fundamental to functioning democracies as protecting free speech.

Public polling in the United States shows strong support for Net Neutrality protections from both Democratic and Republican Party voters: A University of Delaware survey found that 85 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats opposed allowing their internet-access providers to prioritize some web content over others. A similar poll from the Internet Freedom Business Alliance found a large majority of self-identified Republicans and conservatives support Net Neutrality rules and stand alongside Democrats in support of an open internet.

Net Neutrality as a concept is just one part of a broader global movement of people fighting for internet freedom. It’s a movement that includes democracy activists in Eastern Europe, Arab Spring protesters in the Middle East and North Africa, and dissident bloggers and “hacktivists” across Asia. In early 2012, more than 10 million people of differing political views mobilized online and off to defeat the SOPA/PIPA web-censorship legislation in the United States.

Activists on the left, right and center are using the open internet to fight unchecked spying and surveillance by the NSA, CIA and FBI and demand online privacy and free-speech rights.
Over the last decade, the open internet has opened the door for new forms of grassroots political organizing and given activists a way to create diverse coalitions, influence policies and shame bad actors in government.
With only a tiny fraction of the financial resources of our opponents, internet freedom advocates struggle every day to preserve this online openness. The very latest threat to Net Neutrality in the United States comes from the Trump administration, which is determined to unwind the protections won under President Obama.  

Strange bedfellows

As politics across the world become even more divisive — as evidenced by recent elections in the United States and Europe — the key to advancing policies is to build diverse political support at the grassroots level, and to leverage that support against policymakers who have a tendency to put party loyalty before the needs and demands of their constituents.
This is certainly the case in the United States. When my organization Free Press started organizing people around the issue more than 10 years ago we focused on building a coalition of strange political bedfellows.

While the socially conservative group Christian Coalition opposes almost every position taken by the progressive activists at MoveOn they linked arms in support of the open internet — so much so that in 2012 they took out a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring their shared view. “When it comes to protecting Internet freedom, the Christian Coalition and MoveOn respectfully agree,” the ad read.

These two groups had never teamed up on anything before. Their new alliance surprised so many people in Washington that one lawmaker remarked: “If you can get these two groups to agree on an issue, how can it be wrong?”
The Christian Coalition and MoveOn formed the multifaceted backbone of a Net Neutrality coalition that includes more than 100 organizations. Librarians joined with gun owners, musicians with gardening clubs, racial-justice advocates with video gamers, and libertarians with lefties to demand protections for the open internet.

In turn, these groups mobilized their members to act. People called elected representatives in Congress; they submitted comments into public dockets at the FCC; they organized house parties to talk about the issue and spoke out at local town-hall meetings; they wrote songs and created online videos in support of protecting the open internet.

More than 20 million people commented as part of the most recent Net Neutrality proceeding before the FCC, breaking all records for public participation in any matter before the agency. On a few occasions this year, the agency’s online commenting engine crashed due to the flood of comments.   

Building from the bottom up

The unprecedented growth in grassroots support for Net Neutrality policies has been so rapid and overwhelming that it’s caught Washington politicians off guard. Many were left scrambling to alter their positions on the issue – from one of alignment with the powerful phone and cable lobby to positions that favored Net Neutrality as a concept but differed on the recommended policy solution.

After 10 years of organizing on the issue, the grassroots managed to shift enough D.C. policymakers to win landmark Net Neutrality protections at the FCC. On Feb. 26, 2015, the agency voted to prohibit phone and cable companies from blocking and throttling internet content or giving priority online access to a handful of rich companies while relegating the rest of the internet to slow lanes.

It would be hard to overstate just how important this 2015 decision was for internet users. But nothing in Washington, not even a public-interest win of such magnitude, is final. The ink had barely dried on the FCC’s Open Internet Order before phone and cable companies shifted into overdrive. “It falls to Congress to step in,” said the head of the industry’s chief lobbying group. “The FCC has taken us in a distressing direction. We must now look to other branches of government for a more balanced resolution.”

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 set wheels in motion to take away the online freedoms won by a well-organized coalition of internet users. Net Neutrality laws put on the books in Brazil, Chile, India and across the European Union face similar threats from powerful business interests.

The only way to counter these threats is to create an international movement for internet freedom. To mobilize this movement, advocates must welcome people of all political persuasions. Groups must mobilize the public through direct grassroots outreach — outreach that encourages people to become their own agents of change, to organize their friends, neighbors and colleagues in more personal, face-to-face discussions. This outside force, when combined with the issue expertise that public-interest policy shops offer, is an effective way to compel policymakers to side with the people they’re supposed to represent.

Whether working for internet freedom in the United States or abroad, advocates won’t win the right policies without a symbiosis of inclusive fieldwork and policy expertise. While the fight for Net Neutrality is far from over, the best long-term strategy is to reach across ideological differences and build from the bottom up.

Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy for Free Press, the U.S.-based nonprofit group that fights for everyone’s rights to connect and communicate.

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