Net Neutrality

02.09.15 10:45 AM ET

How the Little Guys Beat the Monopolists on Net Neutrality

A year ago, the FCC had sold out. Now it’s pushing real net neutrality. What happened in between proves that people power works.

It’s hard to overstate either how important FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s statement was last week, or how improbable. The chairman’s proposal, which will be voted on by the full five-member commission on February 26, bans broadband companies from discriminating between different content providers based on who can pay. If the FCC supports it, it protects the Internet from a world in which there are slow lanes for poor content providers and fast lanes for rich ones. At the most basic level, it keeps Comcast and Time Warner from becoming the dictators of what we see, read, and write about.

And it’s a political miracle.

A year ago, this was called “the nuclear option.” It was seen as so toxic to big cable, and so radical, that it was used by the pragmatists in Washington simply as a tool to push for something greater.

Nine months ago, one of us wrote an oped asking Barack Obama to demote Tom Wheeler as FCC chair, because he had proposed rules diametrically opposed to the ones he is now actively pushing. His proposal would have allowed for a two-tiered Internet--one for those with power, one for those without. Firing Wheeler seemed essential because he had spent his life as a big cable lobbyist. He epitomized the revolving door coming to government from the Wireless Association, which lobbies for AT&T and Verizon, among others, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, one of the largest lobbying forces in the country.

And big cable came ready to fight. The groups that opposed the so-called Title II reclassification spent more than $75 million lobbying last year alone, and their names are well known: Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and their trade groups. The big web companies that grew up thanks to openness on the Internet behaved more like jealous gatekeepers. Top companies like Facebook and Google were either conspicuously silent or actively lobbied against real net neutrality rules, preferring to force would-be competitors to struggle with tolls.

What happened? Wheeler was forced to reverse his course because of an explosion of the type of decentralized political power that even the most powerful Washington lobbies cannot beat. American citizens flooded the FCC with comments on their proposal. They overwhelmingly demanded real net neutrality rules. People sick of monopolistic telecommunications companies dictating their Internet spoke out, with passion and in unheard-of numbers. No issue before the FCC had ever topped 1.4 million comments. Net neutrality supporters submitted 4 million. That’s nearly 5 percent of the people who voted in the midterm elections submitting comments for an issue that is considered arcane and was barely an idea a decade ago.

The organizers who led the fight employed a basic but rarely used strategy: fighting for what they believed was important without pre-compromising to comply with what Washington thought was politically possible. They asked for bright-line rules that would actually protect the open Internet, something that the courts have made clear could be accomplished only with regulatory reclassification of broadband. They showed how conviction and honest communication with the public can create watershed moments.

It seemed impossible a year ago because if you made a power map, you’d have seen a modest, courageous coalition of small web companies, political activists, and public interest groups on the one hand, and the biggest monopolists on the other. The biggest organizational players in support of Title II classification were groups that did not exist 15 years ago.

Free Press, founded in 2003, played a critical role, providing both the moral backbone and a generous, collaborative spirit that enabled hundreds of smaller organizations to join. Fight for the Future (of which Teachout is a board member) doesn’t even have office space, but created its viral videos depicting a slow-Internet future from a house in rural Massachussetts. Demand Progress was founded in 2010 and provided the bulk of the in-D.C. lobbying muscle (their disclosures say they spent $15,000 on lobbying in 2014—an amount the cable companies probably spend in 30 minutes). And one of the key players, Marvin Ammori, acted as general counsel for all the groups, advising them on policy details and making connections among groups, companies, and policymakers. He worked pro bono.

The tactics of the net neutrality organizers mimicked the Internet that they believe in. It turns out, as disaffected as Americans are supposed to be, they respond to organizing that gives them real power.

They were as creative as they were committed. The activists organized “Internet Slowdown” day and distributed code that showed what the Internet would look like without net neutrality. More than 40,000 websites participated, from tiny blogs and personal pages to big second-tier sites like Netflix that have already been forced to pay tolls to avoid being throttled. More than 2 million people called or emailed policymakers on that day.

They targeted the decentralized power at strategic centers of power. Free Press, Demand Progress, and Fight for the Future built a hub for the movement in the form of the web site battleforthenet.com and pushed calls to Congress because Congress influences the FCC through its oversight role. Small web companies like Etsy, Tumblr, and Kickstarter talked to the White House. Fight for the Future built tools that directed calls and emails at random low-level employees at the FCC because they knew that using unsanctioned channels would get attention. Organizers from Ferguson, whose stand for racial justice against militarized police would never have gotten national attention without fast peer-to-peer sharing of information over the Internet, came to Washington to explain to the FCC why net neutrality is a human rights issue.

Different groups brought different tactics. When Wheeler floated his two-tiered plan, activists from the group Popular Resistance occupied the FCC and blocked in his car to prevent him from going into work because they didn’t believe he was truly working for the public.

Wheeler finally flipped to embrace real net neutrality rules after President Obama announced last November that he supported reclassifying broadband service under Title II. But the President needed to be shown that there was real public support before he would take that position. The 4 million comments to the FCC, the millions of calls to Congress, and the constant stream of diverse voices imploring Washington policymakers to protect the open Internet gave Obama the political backing he needed to make his courageous call to action.

In the following weeks, there will be profiles of each of these groups that led this fight. But the strength of this movement came not from groups but from a deep moral commitment to a political vision of decentralized power.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

Every person we’ve talked to in the coalition spoke about two things: mutual respect and morality. That moral vision, which is so easily dismissed as non-pragmatic, built more power than many of the more "pragmatic efforts." The language inside the nonprofits was the same as the language they used to communicate publicly, so citizens didn't feel condescended to. They felt compelled by the honesty and political vision.

New civil rights leaders have emerged, committed to an open Internet because it’s necessary for free speech and for giving a voice to those most in need of one. The Koch Brothers and the anti-poetics of much of modern politics is turning people out and off, but the net neutrality fight, and victory, shows two things:

(1) People are reachable if you try to reach them with dreams, not just with half-loaves and appeals to self-interest. There are latent political forces that can be raised. This is one thing organized money doesn’t do well, and they’re counting on the public not finding a different model.

(2) Americans are ready to fight against concentrated power. This net neutrality victory doesn't just make the Comcast-Time Warner merger less likely, it’s also a harbinger of big fights against concentrated power in other sectors as well. The four-million-comment moment was a direct rejection of unfettered, monopolistic power extraction. If we want to improve politics in the long run we need to take on more of these fights.

The fierce moral vision inspired those four million people. No matter how good your organizing skills, you can't get four million comments out of a message diminished by excessive pragmatism.

As Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, wrote, "The impossible often has a kind of integrity which the merely improbable lacks." And that integrity may be what makes the impossible possible.