Technology

What the Net Neutrality Debate Teaches About Advocacy in the 21st Century

By / May 13, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Tech enthusiasts and startups have jumped in with both feet on the net neutrality debate, currently heating up at the FCC, in recent weeks. The strategies show how online advocacy can outpace traditional lobbying efforts.

The internet’s virtual citizens don’t take a threat lying down.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler forced to defend a plan to change the way the internet works not once, but twice.

And in the wake of the recent news on net neutrality, we’ve seen many major technology companies launch an offensive against the plan, a fresh White House petition with more than 60,000 signatures thus far, and a Reddit cofounder’s attempt to throw up a billboard directly outside Wheeler’s window.

As a result of all the controversy, the FCC appears ready to make some big concessions, particularly on Wheeler’s much-criticized proposal to allow internet service providers to charge content companies higher fees for faster delivery to users—implying that some content providers, with fewer resources than, say, Google or Netflix, would be relegated to a “slow lane.”

On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Wheeler was adding language to the proposed rules designed to counter the impression that it was separating web traffic into fast and slow lanes. The additions include a comment period on the practice of “paid prioritization” of traffic and whether it should be banned outright. The agency also will welcome comments on whether internet access should be treated as a public utility like electricity—something many tech advocates want, though internet service providers are cool to the idea as it would presumably give the FCC more regulatory authority over the space.

The move came after three of the FCC’s other four commissioners, including two Democrats, publicly took a step back on the issue, in part due to the backlash. This is a big problem for Wheeler, who needs a majority to vote in favor of his proposal for it to go into effect. The commission is supposed to take up the issue later this week, but at least one member has called for a delay.

For those in favor of strong net neutrality protections, that’s a lot of ground gained on a regulatory issue in a short time—especially considering that the interests on the other side (the cable and telecom industry, both of which have ties to Wheeler’s onetime career as an association executive) are fairly sizable.

It’s a good reminder that literally anyone can hop onto a legislative issue and own it with the right amount of savvy, thanks to this tangle of wires we call the interwebs.

Faster and Cheaper

I have to admit that—separate from the many issues here, which are lofty—I find it fascinating how effectively passionate techies have been able to hop on this issue.

Industry groups like Engine Advocacy, a tech policy nonprofit that didn’t exist three years ago, have largely helped drive a level of conversation around tech issues that would have been unheard-of in the pre-internet era.

Now, granted, the old shoe-leather stuff still matters: Meetup, Kickstarter, and Tumblr—three companies that haven’t previously had much of a presence in Washington—are getting their feet wet on this issue.

But we’re in an era where more than 100 big-name venture capitalists can organize an open letter to the FCC in less than a day with just a few emails exchanged. Where a “blackout” of a few major web pages carries more weight than decades of well-worn lobbying. Where building a well-organized campaign around an issue takes minutes instead of months.

It’s a good reminder that literally anyone can hop onto a legislative issue and own it with the right amount of savvy, thanks to this tangle of wires we call the interwebs.

Slacktivist Concerns

On the other hand, this moment’s-notice activism comes with some big potential downsides. It’s possible that the pool of supporters can be wide but so shallow that it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny—a phenomenon that you might know as “slacktivism.”

A popular Twitter campaign in recent weeks, #BringBackOurGirls, shows both the benefits and the downsides of this approach. The campaign, started by activists in Nigeria looking to draw attention to the kidnapping of 257 schoolgirls by a militant Islamic group, spread widely without any outside investment, but not without criticism. Some raised concerns—especially after it became popular in the U.S.—that it oversimplified a complex geopolitical issue.

(Then again, now might be a good time to bring back this 2013 Pew study that suggests online activity turns into offline action.)

A viral issue can get too hot to handle with the wrong approach. In recent months, the progressive activist Suey Park has helped launch two popular hashtags, #NotYourAsianSidekick and #CancelColbert, meant to highlight the stereotypes that Asians face in popular media. But these hashtags, especially in the case of the latter, don’t soft-pedal their concerns, creating the potential for backlash. The average person wants to get involved in an issue, not get sucked into a fight with no winners.

Room for Creativity

In the case of net neutrality, the debate has borrowed from these “slacktivist” techniques—reaching big audiences and earning press coverage with viral stunts—without being defined by them.

Often, the strategies used to drive political protests have been creative—such as the technique used by the web host Neocities to literally slow down its connection to the FCC website to dial-up modem speeds.

And rather than simply pointing out that there’s a problem, firms such as the Mozilla Foundation are offering up alternative ideas to the FCC to actually drive the discussion forward.

This strikes me as the real potential here. We’re in an era where the average person can become an activist on the fly, and with the right strategy, you can engage people in the issues that matter to your industry.

And if you’re lucky, the cofounder of Reddit might get involved.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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