The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Net neutrality opponents are taking a page out of their rivals’ grassroots playbook

(Don't Break the Net)

If there's one thing the Internet is good at, it's galvanizing Web users to action with a good David-and-Goliath story. For months, advocates of strong net neutrality have been whipping supporters into opposing large, incumbent corporations that stand to benefit from charging content firms for better, faster access to consumers. Some broadband companies have pushed back strongly against that impression, but that's only served to highlight the bright line dividing commercial Internet providers from ordinary Americans.

Now, however, some who see it from the internet service providers' perspective are taking a page out of the public interest groups' playbook, with a bit of a David-and-Goliath story of their own. A market-minded think tank is making a play for Americans who object to heavier regulation of Internet service providers. The push began this week with a Web site, Don't Break the Net, that urges the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission not to subject Internet providers to heavier regulation.

Behind the Web site is a libertarian think tank known as TechFreedom. TechFreedom openly draws inspiration from the much more experienced and powerful progressive grassroots groups: Don't Break the Net encourages you to write to the FCC advocating a "hands-off" policy. And doing so will automatically add you to TechFreedom's e-mail list (in the non-profit universe, the size of a group's e-mail list is often taken as a sign of its wealth and influence). Don't Break the Net even acknowledges copying the open-source code that went into the net neutrality advocates' own site, Battle for the Net, which represents some of the Web's most well-known properties — Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox browser; Etsy; reddit; Kickstarter and others.

"The digital left has become very good at digital activism," TechFreedom president Berin Szoka said in an interview. "I know because we've worked with them" on issues such as cellphone unlocking, fighting surveillance and internet piracy.

Appropriating the left's tactics is easy enough. Making the case against the left is something else entirely. It's not hard to understand why: The vast majority of comments left at the FCC on net neutrality have come from those who generally support stronger policies. But — perhaps taking another cue from the tech progressives — Szoka also thinks that using humor and the colloquial language of Internet culture can help.

"Cat videos aren't megawatts and the net's not a series of tubes, so don't treat it like a utility," the banner on Don't Break the Web reads.

Down below, the site quotes a number of scholars and businesspeople known for their work in Internet advocacy. If even these people disagree with stronger regulations, then perhaps TechFreedom has a point — or so the reasoning goes.

So is the grassroots plan working? Szoka declined to discuss it, though he did say that TechFreedom is beginning to work with sympathetic groups like CalInnovates to develop similar messaging.

There are some ways of evaluating TechFreedom's success so far. One Washington-based digital strategist — who has not been advocating on the net neutrality issue — observed that Don't Break the Net's web site "is pretty dead right now," according to statistics tracked by the social media service ShareCount. As of Friday morning, Don't Break the Net had been shared on Twitter 184 times and been liked 93 times on Facebook. Battle for the Net, has been around longer, but it is also far more popular in contrast.

Another sign that TechFreedom's campaign could run into trouble: Some say the quotes from businesspeople and legal scholars don't fully represent the speakers' views. Among them is Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard University professor and Creative Commons co-founder who's currently heading up a bid to end the influence of money in politics. Don't Break the Net portrays Lessig as an advocate for weaker regulation on ISPs.

Lessig lashed out at that characterization Thursday by e-mail.

"This quotation is completely out of context," Lessig said. "It is true, I think we should abolish the FCC. But as the same article argued, we should replace the FCC with an agency better able to protect competition. And the first step in that for the Internet would be to protect the biggest engine for competition we’ve seen: a neutral network."

Lessig is an outspoken proponent of net neutrality, having appeared alongside other net neutrality advocates such as his Harvard colleague Susan Crawford and Columbia University law professor Tim Wu — the latter of whom is also represented on Don't Break the Net. It's not clear what Wu makes of the quote (he didn't respond to an e-mail or a phone call Thursday) but Wu is credited with inventing the term "net neutrality."

Don't Break the Net also cites the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the tech law and advocacy group known among many for its stance against electronic surveillance. Citing an EFF blog post from 2009, Don't Break the Net paints the group as anti-FCC.

According to EFF activism director Rainey Reitman, however, this is no longer EFF's position.

"Our current stance is from June of this year, which acknowledges an important (but narrow) role for the FCC," said Reitman in an e-mail. "We want to be very, very clear: the FCC’s regulatory role should be narrow and firmly bounded. Network neutrality rules should be limited to specific prohibitions — such as blocking, discrimination among applications and prohibiting special access fees — potentially combined with a renewed 'open access' requirement that would foster local competition, and no more."

Szoka didn't respond to a request for comment on the quotes.

If it takes off, Don't Break the Net will be the first successful grassroots campaign pushing back against the much larger forces rallying in favor of strong net neutrality rules. Lacking the budget or the experience of its well-connected progressive rivals, TechFreedom is starting at a disadvantage. It's also far from clear that there's a substantial grassroots constituency that supports TechFreedom's anti-regulation message; in the Sunlight Foundation's analysis of the FCC's net neutrality comments, only 5 percent expressed opposition to stronger rules. Still, as a second-mover, TechFreedom isn't starting from zero. It's already learning how to fight like the other side.