Internet freedom: A populism for free expression

Earlier this week, President Trump officially tapped Ajit Pai to head the Federal Communications Commission. As an FCC commissioner, Pai has been one of the staunchest opponents of net neutrality in Washington, and his appointment as chair portends a sustained effort to roll back protections ensuring an open internet

Nearly two years ago, with Pai opposing, the FCC approved strong net neutrality rules on a 3–2 vote. This marked the culmination of a grassroots effort the likes of which the country has rarely seen. In the months prior, nearly four million people mobilized, calling for strong net neutrality protections, and the FCC delivered by implementing rules that would prevent internet providers from relegating content to online slow lanes. For the public, it was a rare triumph over some of the country’s most politically-entrenched and powerful interests — the Big Cable industry.

The grassroots-based net neutrality campaign was a signature victory for a loose, populist movement championing internet freedom — the concept that people should be free to share and receive content online without unnecessary gatekeepers or undue censorship and surveillance, whether at the hands of corporations or the government.

Now not only is net neutrality in peril with Trump’s appointment of Pai, but attempts to significantly curtail digital privacy protections are seemingly imminent under the new Administration and Congress. As proponents of internet freedom prepare for what will undoubtedly be long, arduous fights to defend the movement’s gains, it’s worth considering where we’ve been, and why defending these gains is as important as ever.

It is essential that activism also include the defense of internet freedom and free expression online — without which, our ability to organize will be severely curtailed.

A brief history.

The internet freedom movement was built on decades of pioneering work by seminal individuals and organizations, but for much of the public, the modern grassroots movement championing internet freedom came into sharp focus in late 2011 and early 2012. Last week marked the five-year anniversary of a massive internet blackout in which thousands of sites went dark in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, a bill pushed by Hollywood lobbyists that would censor legitimate online content under the banner of curtailing piracy. Along with the blackout, millions of people contacted Congress in opposition. Within days, the bill was dead, and Washington was left stunned.

Next, many of the players involved in the SOPA coalition turned to campaigns that would twice stall a privacy-invasive bill, known as the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA. Advocates helped compel presidential veto threats from the Obama White House before a version of the legislation — which was ultimately a setback for privacy, but improved under pressure from advocates— passed in 2015.

And after revelations of secret surveillance by Edward Snowden in 2013, there was a massive public effort to pass legislation rolling back the government’s sprawling spying programs. These efforts mobilized hundreds of thousands of activists and helped shift the frame of the surveillance debate, leading to a temporary sunset of PATRIOT Act provisions, blocking straight reauthorization of that law, and undermining attempts to weaken reforms.

Then there was the push for net neutrality, a crescendo that capped an effort over a decade in the making that arguably delivered the movement’s greatest victory, by preventing a system in which deep-pocketed media conglomerates could pay a Comcast or an AT&T to have their online content reach folks faster. Such a system would wreak havoc on an open internet, choking off smaller players and startups that couldn’t afford to pay up, including platforms that give voice to individuals with crucial — if less widely accepted — views. The net neutrality victory was also bolstered by the defeat of the Comcast-Time Warner merger later in the spring of 2015, when grassroots organizing helped make the merger one of the most unpopular in history, preventing the formation of a monopolistic giant that would stifle competition and directly lead to less affordable rates.

Broad coalitions.

A hallmark of the internet freedom movement has been the ability to use the internet to organize and mobilize millions, with unparalleled efficiency and volume, to champion digital freedoms — in short, to use the internet to defend the open internet. This often takes the form of online actions — petitions, emails to policymakers, phone calls, and targeted tweets — or organizing in-person events, like rallies and marches.

Of course, using the internet to organize, to communicate, and to access information knows no political affiliation or ideology, which is why the movement has accomplished something increasingly rare: A transcendence of traditional partisan lines, and even an engagement of the otherwise apolitical.

One of the movement’s strengths has been its relative lack of partisan rigidity. It has been comprised of shifting coalitions, at various times made of progressives and libertarians; social and racial justice groups; rural community advocates; startups, venture capitalists and some of the world’s largest internet platforms; and a wide array of internet users, including folks without a particular affiliation. The broadest of these coalitions, spanning the progressive-libertarian spectrum, have formed when the push is against government interference in the form of surveillance and censorship, as opposed to industry efforts that would harm the open internet.

The ability to simultaneously mobilize incredibly diverse and otherwise seemingly disparate segments of the public has helped create untraditional partnerships between constituents’ elected officials in Washington — of progressive Congressional Democrats and Tea Party Republicans, for example — resulting in some of the movement’s most surprising victories.

Populism for free expression.

The internet freedom movement can be seen as one of the many harbingers for the much broader, highly-energized populist movements skeptical of increasingly concentrated political power and wealth, which would rise among both parties’ voting bases during the 2016 presidential primaries and general election.

One hallmark of the internet freedom movement has been a populist mobilization to prevent powerful interests — embodied by influential lobbies in Washington — from curtailing the public’s right to free expression. In the case of SOPA, the pushback was against Big Hollywood, and its plans for unnecessary censorship of legitimate digital content. In the surveillance reform campaigns, the movement protested Big Government and its surveillance programs that violated the rights of millions of ordinary and innocent people, creating an insidious disincentive for folks to organize and communicate openly. And the fight for net neutrality saw a massive backlash against Big Cable lobbyists’ profit-driven mission to create an internet of fast lanes and slow lanes that would stifle the voices of smaller sites and the public.

In each of these fights, the public — the folks willing to speak out to defend their right to free expression — secured victories against some of the nation’s most influential interests, not with the help of K Street lobbyists, but instead by effectively using the internet to mobilize en masse and give voice to millions.

As important as ever.

The movement’s victories have been paramount to preserving the internet as a space where free expression — and the democracy it can help enable — has a fighting chance to persist.

In 2017 and beyond, activism pushing back against government corruption, and defending economic and racial justice, women’s rights, and civil liberties, will be as critical as it ever. It is essential that part of this activism also include the defense of internet freedom and free expression online — without which, our ability to organize will be severely curtailed.