The Future of Broadband

Buoyed By Net-Neutrality Win, Internet Activists Prepare Next Campaign

A little-known trade deal may be their next target.

Protesters rally to support net neutrality outside of the Federal Communications Commission on May 15, 2014.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
March 1, 2015, 3 p.m.

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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