The clicktivists are on a roll.
Over the opposition of some of Washington’s most powerful corporate interests, an unlikely grassroots coalition came together and successfully lobbied the Federal Communications Commission to adopt the strongest net-neutrality rules possible.
This wasn’t a fluke. Just a few years ago, many of the same groups turned the Internet into a war zone over the Stop Online Piracy Act. They viewed the copyright bill, heavily backed by Hollywood and music interests, as an assault on the foundational freedoms enshrined in the Internet and launched an online guerrilla campaign that included thousands of websites shutting down in protest.
Lawmakers promptly killed the bill and fled for the hills.
Internet “slacktivism” is frequently derided as a passive form of political engagement that doesn’t translate to real-world results. But the wins on net neutrality and SOPA have shown that online campaigns can strike policy paydirt — particularly when the fate of the Internet itself is at stake. President Obama himself acknowledged this after the FCC’s vote, sending a note to reddit users thanking them for fighting to “keep the Internet open and free.”
Now, the ragtag group of activists may turn their attention to another wonky issue: the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And it would mean breaking their alliance with the White House.
The proposed free-trade deal is backed by Obama and congressional Republicans, who say it is needed to boost exports in the Asia-Pacific region and compete with a rising China. But Democrats have been largely dubious, citing the lack of transparency and potential that it could bolster powerful global companies.
Internet groups have skin in the game because they fear the deal could lead to an expansion of restrictive copyright policing on the Web overseas, as participating countries would likely have to comply with U.S. intellectual-property laws. Fight for the Future, an open-Internet advocacy group, has blasted the proposed trade agreement as a plot that “would force SOPA-like Internet censorship on the world.”
A bill to grant “fast-track” authority to the deal — meaning Congress could only approve or reject the negotiated terms but not amend them — could resurface in Congress as soon as this week. (Obama spent time last week talking up the deal in some local TV interviews.) But despite their alignment with the administration on net neutrality, Internet groups have indicated they have no qualms breaking from Obama to further their agenda.
“It used to be that progressives were much more hesitant to attack the Obama administration. That’s gone,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge.
“Online activists on both the right and the left are giving up on the idea that they need to get the right people elected and are instead focusing on specific policy issues like net neutrality, like surveillance, because that’s where the action is,” Feld added.
Internet-freedom groups see the trade deal as a discrete, winnable policy goal, akin to net neutrality, and they are buoyed by the fact that it has been routinely ridiculed by other progressive groups and even many Democrats in Congress. Last week, populist firebrand Sen. Elizabeth Warren penned an op-ed in The Washington Post targeting a clause in the “enormous new treaty” that would “tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations.”
Warren’s renewed focus on the trade pact has raised the attention of Internet groups, which are shrewdly aware of the Massachusetts Democrat’s ability to take a wonky policy issue and make it a rallying cry for the liberal base.
“You can look at Elizabeth Warren as sort of holding a big neon sign that says, ‘This way to the next progressive win,’” Feld said. Add in opposition from other groups like organized labor and nurses, he added, and “TPP is ripe to be the next target for the open-Internet movement.”
But can Internet groups win without the support of big tech interests in the room? Unlike net neutrality or SOPA, the trade deal isn’t likely to attract intense lobbying interest from tech giants like Netflix and Google.
The slacktivists don’t seem too worried.
“The truth is, the activist community is better at winning than the tech companies,” Marvin Ammori, a tech-company consultant, said. “I don’t know if they aren’t trying to win or don’t know how to win, but activists know how to win.”
They also know they need to work to protect their victories.
Campaign organizers who won the net-neutrality battle are also stressing the need to protect the FCC decision from being undone by congressional Republicans.
“First and foremost, we have to defend the [net-neutrality] rule,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a liberal group that works heavily on Internet issues. “There have already been fledging attempts to undermine it. The question is whether the opposition will coalesce around a particular vehicle.”
Ammori agreed that “net neutrality is still ‘next’ right now,” and said that open-Internet groups are going to work to protect the FCC from any GOP revenge plots. But he said he expected most legislators to quietly move away from the issue, as they did after SOPA crumbled. “I see the same thing happening with net neutrality, with people crawling under a rock.”
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