At Spitfire, we’ve been engaged in the fight to preserve a free and open internet for nearly a decade, so we know how far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go. We’ve always understood that achieving the big victory of permanently preserving the open internet is a long game, one that will include both wins and losses before we ultimately triumph.
But we’ve seen firsthand the tremendous gains achieved by a coalition of diverse organizations, businesses and policymakers who have joined forces to move net neutrality from the margins to the mainstream and into a politically potent idea that has captured national attention and become a central issue of our time. The long view has given us particularly keen insight into how far the public has come on caring about what was once a little-known issue.
One of our team members summed it up this way: “Net neutrality went from being my least understood issue to being one of my favorite things.”
Today, most Americans would agree. They like a free and open internet and they know net neutrality is central to that. But back in 2014, as a coalition of nonprofit organizations, civil rights advocates and policy wonks were working together to advocate for it, the concept of net neutrality was largely unfamiliar to the public.
Fast-forward to December 2017, just before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to dismantle the net neutrality protections Spitfire helped the coalition win in 2015. By 2017, Americans had a very different take. A majority – 83 percent – opposed the FCC’s proposal to end the net neutrality protections that keep the internet free and open – showing that they now not only understood what was at stake, but had strong opinions about it.
Although this FCC didn’t listen to the American people, voting to repeal net neutrality rules last month, the coalition of diverse organizations fighting for the open internet heard the people, loud and clear. And the fight continues. We’re on the right track toward the long-term win of preserving net neutrality, with just one more vote needed in the Senate to overrule the FCC.
Below are five lessons we learned along the way that worked for net neutrality and can be applied to any issue worth fighting for.
1. Give your audience a reason to care.
Though the term “net neutrality” was coined in 2003, even by 2014 few had heard of it. But Spitfire helped a deep and varied coalition from across the nation mobilize the groups that would be most impacted by the loss of a free and open internet to ensure that if net neutrality would impact you, you’d hear about it. This included grassroots groups and communities of color as well as influential tech leaders such as Etsy, Kickstarter, Tumblr and Twitter. We worked with the coalition to re-frame the issue and create a consistent drumbeat of messages focused on free speech, opportunity, diversity and innovation. As public support grew, it became harder for decision-makers to ignore us.
We had some big initial wins — the FCC’s ruling in February 2015 that reclassified internet access as a public utility, providing strong protections for equal access to the internet, as well as a U.S. District Court of Appeals ruling upholding that decision — and a blitz of positive media coverage. The long and growing list of prominent net neutrality supporters proved that our efforts made a meaningful impact in framing public opinion on net neutrality.
After the 2016 election, the field knew another fight was on the horizon. This time, our message had a new emphasis: internet rights are civil rights. We capitalized on the fact that the internet had become a highly-visible tool for public engagement in movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite, organizing large-scale protests like the Women’s March and advocacy on a variety of issues. With a strong coalition leading the way, Spitfire helped re-frame the fight for net neutrality as a fight for civil rights and our core democratic principle of free speech, and reshaped the field’s messaging accordingly.
2. Show people what they stand to lose.
The principle of loss aversion has played a central role in the coalition’s recent strategy. People don’t want to lose what they have, so we made sure the messaging around net neutrality reminded people how central the internet has become to our way of life — and how vital to our basic freedoms it is. Especially after the 2016 election, it wasn’t difficult to get wide swaths of the public on board with the message that eliminating net neutrality protections could literally inhibit their freedom of speech.
Communities that have been historically marginalized have the most to lose if net neutrality protections aren’t preserved, so we sharpened our focus on lifting up the voices of grassroots organizations that work with people of color. Spitfire collaborated with organizations, such as the Center for Media Justice, Color Of Change, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, to elevate the message that a free and open internet is critical to civil rights movements. Notably, our work with comedian and CNN host W. Kamau Bell ended up as an op-ed in The New York Times, a piece which appealed to a wide and diverse audience.
3. Minimize the opposition.
Big cable and telecommunications companies, our opponent in the net neutrality fight, were well resourced, but we had something stronger than money on our side: the truth. Nearly everyone has had a bad experience or felt lied to or taken advantage of by their cable or wireless company. So when Big Cable was telling customers that ending net neutrality wouldn’t slow their service down or make it cost more, it wasn’t difficult to remind Americans of all of the times they have been lied to or that these businesses routinely put profits before people.
The coalition was also able to minimize early on an expected opposition claim that net neutrality was anti-business by recruiting and activating businesses to say why they rely on a free and open internet. Small businesses, helmed by single parents, techies with the next big idea and creatives, joined the likes of SnapChat, Funny or Die and even PornHub to explain how net neutrality not only promotes businesses of all shapes and sizes, but fans the flames of innovation and makes the next Facebook or YouTube web series or hit TV show like “Insecure” possible.
4. Keep your constituencies engaged.
Organizations, from Fight for the Future and Free Press to Demand Progress and Color of Change, were particularly astute in their reinforcement messaging – thanking those taking action and showing constituencies how their time and energy was making a difference. A week before the FCC’s vote on net neutrality, Americans from more than 700 communities across the nation organized demonstrations at their local Verizon stores to protest the role big business was playing in taking away the internet as we know it. This was an unprecedented mobilization, and particularly laudable at a time when activists are called upon to protest so many urgent issues.
Although we knew the FCC would ultimately vote to overturn net neutrality protections, on the day of the December 2017 vote we supported the Net Neutrality Wake-Up Call Rally hosted by the Voices for Internet Freedom coalition outside the FCC building. The goal was to energize people so that, even after the unfavorable FCC vote, they’d continue paying attention to and mobilizing around the next phase of the movement. We supported key influencers, including writer Jamilah Lemieux, CNN contributor Symone D. Sanders and “Insecure” actress and comedian Amanda Seales, and advocates who use social media platforms to talk about their issues – sounding the alarm on what net neutrality means to people of color and diverse communities across the nation.
5. Use your movement to support all movements.
By now, anyone who uses the internet to advocate for social justice or to make their voice heard understands that a free and open web is essential to protecting free speech. We’re already working with the coalition on next steps in the fight for net neutrality. Our efforts will be boosted by the deep public understanding of the issue that the coalition has created – a public not just informed but that stands ready and willing to mobilize to protect it. In fact, the work the field has done in coalition building, messaging and engagement in communities big and small across the nation has catalyzed the country in support of preserving net neutrality protections, resulting in the ACLU’s single biggest online action to date.
Just like our Spitfire team member who shifted from knowing little about the importance of the open internet to passionately fighting for it, the country has gone from not really understanding the issue to deciding that net neutrality is one of their favorite things.