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Net Neutrality Activists Believe the 'Internet Voter' Is a New Political Force

Translating populist energy into political clout.

Sam Gustin

Sam Gustin

Image: Backbone Campaign/Flickr

Now that the US government's historic open internet protections have taken effect, many of the activists who pushed for the landmark rules are aiming to turn their victory into a new political force.

The Federal Communications Commission's open internet policy still faces major threats from broadband giants and their allies in Congress, but the successful net neutrality campaign has emboldened activists as they look toward the 2016 elections and beyond.

Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, a DC-based advocacy group that helped lead the net neutrality fight, believes that recent policy victories demonstrate that voters who prioritize internet issues have the potential to become a formidable political force—if they can get organized.

"It's more than a trend, it's real momentum, it's concrete victories, and it is an opportunity," Aaron said recently at Personal Democracy Forum in New York.

In addition to the net neutrality campaign, when groups like Free Press mobilized millions of people to lobby the FCC, Aaron cited the 2012 effort to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which activists warned could have led to online censorship under the guise of copyright protection. More recently, strong public opposition to Comcast's $45 billion attempt to swallow Time Warner Cable played a role in that deal's demise.

Aaron argues that there's an emerging type of voter—the "internet voter"

For Aaron, whose group has launched a new campaign—Internet 2016—designed to organize voters ahead of the upcoming elections, the question is: "How do we take all of this populist energy from winning campaigns, and translate it into real political power and lasting change?"

Aaron argues that there's an emerging type of voter—the "internet voter"—that cares deeply about tech policy issues, but isn't necessarily pigeon-holed along traditional partisan or ideological lines. These voters care about issues like free speech online, access to affordable high-speed broadband, and limits on government and private sector snooping.

Broadband access, in particular, has great potential as an organizational issue, Aaron says. For a new generation of tech-savvy, politically engaged voters, high-speed, low-cost internet access has become like a utility, on par with electricity or water. And it's not just mobile-crazy millennials. Around the country, city officials, startup entrepreneurs, and community leaders have made fiber-based, high-speed connectivity a civic priority.

Over the last year, a non-profit group called Next Century Cities has built significant momentum bringing together a coalition of leaders who agree that gigabit connectivity fosters economic growth and citizen empowerment. "Fast, reliable, and affordable Internet—at globally competitive speeds—is no longer optional," according to the group, which now has 94 member cities and counties. "Residents, schools, libraries, and businesses require next-generation connectivity to succeed."

Prominent national politicians are starting to pay attention. Earlier this year, President Obama called for the FCC to preempt industry-backed state laws that ban or discourage local communities from building super-fast networks. (The FCC has moved ahead to do just that.) Days later, Sen. Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat, introduced a bill to empower cities that want to build their own networks.

A national push for high-speed, low-cost internet access could be a potent organizing tool, because it's an issue that cuts across partisan and ideological lines, according to Chris Mitchell, policy director at Next Century Cities and the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

"This is something that Democrats and Republicans in every city and town across the country can agree on," said Mitchell.

There's a thread that connects net neutrality, affordable high-speed internet access, and opposition to media mega-mergers: a growing sense that consolidation and deregulation have allowed corporate giants to amass too much economic and political power at the expense of everyday citizens. And if harnessed, this sense of imbalance could become a compelling way to motivate internet-minded voters to engage with what will likely be the most important issue in the 2016 presidential election—economic inequality.

Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law professor who launched a spirited challenge to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in last year's gubernatorial election, believes the demise of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger heralds a new national drive to challenge the seemingly inexorable growth of America's largest corporations across industries like media, telecommunications, and financial services.

"Along with the Federal Communications Commission's recent decision on net neutrality, it signals the beginning of an anti-monopoly movement much like the one that broke up Standard Oil 100 years ago, ushering in an era of fairer American markets," Teachout, a longtime open internet advocate who led online strategy for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, wrote recently.

Are we on the brink of a new period of trust-busting on par with President Teddy Roosevelt's crusade against industrial barons like John D. Rockefeller? Maybe, maybe not. But Teachout argues that national politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of Wall Street's biggest critics, Sen. Al Franken, who fiercely opposed the Comcast merger, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive iconoclast who is running for president, "are creating a populist fighting force representing the broad grassroots demand that we break up big companies."

Among government regulators, the FCC, in particular, seems to be taking a tougher stand against consolidation. Last year, FCC officials made clear that they opposed Sprint's attempt to gobble up T-Mobile, which would have reduced the number of big US wireless carriers from four to three. In the face of that government resistance, Sprint eventually dropped its effort to buy T-Mobile.

Few observers expected the US government to oppose the Comcast-TWC merger, in part because of the cable giant's immense political influence. But oppose it the government did, stunning corporate America and internet activists alike. The day the merger collapsed, FCC Chairman Wheeler declared that the deal would have "posed an unacceptable risk to competition and innovation."

The growing sentiment among internet activists that corporate interests, and the billionaires often allied with them, have too much power, could also impact hot-button 2016 issues like campaign finance reform. It's not news that tech-savvy activists like Teachout and Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig have been leading the fight to challenge Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to virtually unlimited campaign spending by corporations.

When corporations wield disproportionate influence on elections, is it any wonder that lawmakers are highly "sympathetic" to their legislative and policy goals? Today, Congress is chock full of politicians who have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the likes of Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and other corporate giants. Not surprisingly, many of these politicians are among the most vocal critics of policies that these corporate giants oppose, like net neutrality and community broadband.

That's why campaign finance reform is inextricably linked to these tech policy debates

That's why campaign finance reform is inextricably linked to these tech policy debates, not to mention just about every other issue facing Congress. Money has so corrupted the political system, Lessig has long argued, that real reform is incredibly difficult on any issue until campaign finance reform is achieved. That's one reason why the net neutrality victory and Comcast merger defeat were so remarkable.

Is it time for an "internet political party" to rise up and challenge the two dominant US political parties? "No, we're not ready," said Aaron. "Maybe we need a Tea Party-style insurgency, or maybe we need to figure out how to make the internet a third-rail issue."

In other words, it's still early. Voters who care about internet issues remain a largely inchoate bloc that seems to migrate from issue to issue, without the connective organizational tissue and overarching philosophy that's necessary to create a powerful political force. Aaron says that internet voters have "shared values and shared principles, but they don't right now have a shared identity, at least not politically."

As the 2016 election cycle begins to heat up, Aaron and his fellow activists are aiming to change that.