Today the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on rules enshrining “net neutrality” into law. It’s a significant moment for the future of the Internet, but it’s also one of the few major examples in the last six years in which liberal activists forced the Obama administration’s hand in an area where it had been dragging its feet or was actively opposed to what the activists wanted.
There have been a few of these victories for the left— for instance, President Obama wanted to appoint Larry Summers to succeed outgoing Fed chair Ben Bernanke, but after pressure from the left he picked Janet Yellen instead — but they’ve been few and far between. So the net neutrality case offers some lessons for activists who want to shape the policies of a friendly administration.
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers should treat all traffic equally; it’s essentially the way the Internet operates now, and these new rules would make sure that doesn’t change. Without it, an ISP like Comcast could decide that it’s going to slow down certain web sites, like those of everyone who doesn’t pay them a hefty fee; that would make it harder for small businesses to operate on the web and stifle innovation, in addition to making things frustrating for consumers.
President Obama always said he supported net neutrality, but never actually did much about it. When he appointed Tom Wheeler, the current chair of the FCC, open Internet advocates worried that net neutrality could be threatened, because Wheeler had been a telecom industry lobbyist. Wheeler had been crafting neutrality rules that would give the ISPs some of what they wanted when Obama made a public statement in support of net neutrality in January, ramping up the pressure. At the same time, a major lobbying and PR campaign from activists and certain corporations (we’ll get to that in a moment) was deluging the FCC with comments and pleas to preserve the open Internet.
Despite those millions of comments in favor of net neutrality, most Americans don’t know much about this issue, and can be swayed to take either side if you frame the question properly (see this versus this). So net neutrality was of intense interest to a small portion of the population, but largely ignored by the rest. In those conditions, the people with power and money usually win. And this may be the most important lesson of this fight for activists: if you want to beat a well-funded opponent, get some wealthy allies of your own.
Most Republicans on Capitol Hill oppose net neutrality. Ted Cruz called it “Obamacare for the Internet” (which makes about as much sense as saying that Obamacare is “tumbleweed for the bellybutton”; it’s just a jumble of words that have nothing to do with each other). But the real opponents were the cable and ISP companies. They don’t want to be regulated like utilities; they’d rather have the freedom to charge whatever they want to whomever they want. They may not yet be saying to Home Depot, “Give us this many millions of dollars and your web site will load fast on our customers’ computers, while Bob’s Hardware’s website won’t,” but they wanted to reserve the right to do that some time in the future. These companies have billions of dollars to spend and huge lobbying clout.
But the activists were able to partner with an equally well-heeled group: Internet companies like Google and Netflix, the ones who feared getting shaken down by the ISPs. While we can’t rewind history and see if this battle could have been won without them, there’s no question that when Silicon Valley came calling, the administration listened, not only because it’s a vital industry but also because of all the millions of dollars tech companies and their employees give to Democrats.
There’s an oft-repeated story (which may or may not be true) that after his election in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt met with labor leaders who presented him with a list of actions they wanted him to take to help workers. “I agree with you,” Roosevelt supposedly said. “I want to do it, now make me do it.” The point is that outside pressure can give the president the political space to take actions that he was inclined to do anyway but might not have been able to. Without that pressure, it can be harder to resist the special interests who oppose the action.
That pressure can come in many forms, some more public, some less so. The tea party has great influence over the GOP because they discovered a means of making Republican officeholders afraid: the primary challenge. That’s something that activists can mount on a relatively small scale, with limited funds, and all it takes is a few successful primary challenges to get results.
Net neutrality was never going to be the top voting issue for huge numbers of people, so activists couldn’t use elections as a meaningful tool to get lawmakers motivated to help their cause. And if you need an inside strategy, you have to have insiders on your side. Just being right is not enough (if memory serves, somebody once wrote a book with that in the title); your strategy has to locate a pressure point for the decision-makers, and convince them that siding against you is more trouble than siding with you.
For most of Barack Obama’s presidency, liberal activists have complained that the administration ignores them. But they’re starting to win some victories, and each one makes the next one more likely. Nothing would be better for the left than if people in the administration were reflexively worried about angering their base in the same way that Republicans worry about angering theirs. It might not happen in the same way as it does with Republicans, but this was a significant step in that direction.