When it comes to making Open Internet rules, “grassroots” activists have mastered the use of digital tools and techniques to overwhelm telecom regulators with emails and petitions. A review of the campaigns finds that a core group of activists based in the US and funded by American companies and foundations have successfully orchestrated “clicktivism” campaigns around the world, effectively undermining the democratic process and the expertise of independent agencies.
An American concept leveraged for rulemaking abroad
Just as McDonalds has enabled franchise restaurateurs around the world to provide local populations with its signature burgers and fries, American advocacy organizations offer “white label” platforms and training to activist net neutrality entrepreneurs.
Public Knowledge offers an “advocacy toolkit (0)” and an online “Open Internet (1)” course in Spanish. The Mozilla Foundation maintains a Github site with “tools for activism (2),” a “net neutrality teaching kit (3),” and net neutrality training modules (4).
These groups are well-organized, but also well-funded. According to a grants database, billionaire currency speculator George Soros provided a $200,000 seed grant to Free Press (the organization behind SaveTheInternet.com) in 2004 and another $400,000 in 2005 through his Open Society Institute. Net neutrality advocates have also received plenty of financial support from industry giants. In fact, net neutrality has been described as (5) “the brainchild of the likes of Google and Amazon.com, which want to offer consumers things like high-speed movie downloads, but don’t want to pay the network operators a fee to ensure what in the industry is called “quality of service”– i.e., ensuring the consumer gets what he pays for quickly and reliably.”
American activists have inspired – and actively pushed for – similar net neutrality campaigns in the EU and India. These campaigns typically consist of form letters that individuals are encouraged to send to regulators or political leaders.
But American activists have gone much further than simply offering training and guidance. An analysis (6)of the flood of emails sent to the EU’s Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) as part of its consultation to make guidelines for net neutrality revealed that at least one-third of these emails came from Americans in the US who leveraged mailing lists from US activism platform providers AccessNow and Avaaz. The Canadian activist group OpenMedia also contributed some 30,000 emails.
Clicktivists have also been known to inflate their own numbers, arguably in an attempt to further increase pressure on regulators. For example, the US-funded SavetheInternet.eu (7) reported that more than 500,000 emails were delivered to BEREC. However, a report (8) based on access to the emails shows that this number is vastly inflated, as SavetheInternet.eu’s platform replicates each email 28 times, one for each of the individual national telecom regulatory authorities of the EU member states.
Crowdsourcing academic activists
Last week, a letter (9) organized by Stanford’s Barbara van Schewick and signed by 126 “leading” academics claimed that the EU net neutrality law, unless amended through BEREC’s guidelines, will deter academics’ “ability to research, collaborate, and educate.” The text amounts to two pages with just two references. This marks an interesting contrast to the 37 economists who produced 30 pages of comments (10) with almost 100 references explaining their concerns with the FCC’s net neutrality regulations. In a clicktivist world, it seems like quantity trumps quality.
The implications of clicktivism
Clicktivism is not illegal, but it raises the question of whether policy decisions, justified not by their merits but by the numbers, are sound. As the CEO of American Commitment, a group which delivered more than 800,000 comments against the FCC’s actions in 2014 in an effort to demonstrate how email campaigns can be manufactured on demand, observed (11), “Would the FCC, which is supposed to be an expert agency, actually make policy decisions of enormous consequence for the US economy based on an email plebiscite? It appears they fully intended to, which is frightening.” That is to say, it may be justified to smother elected officials with emails, but not regulators who are supposed to be at arm’s length from politics.
In the EU, the European Parliament, Commission, and Council approved an Open Internet law which does not mention zero rating or specialized services. And yet while amendments proposed by American net neutrality activist Barbara van Schewick to ban these practices were unanimously rejected by the parliament, they made it into the BEREC guidelines, showing that the will of the people was rejected, plain and simple. Activists may successfully effect their policies in the short run by circumventing the legislature to lobby regulators directly, but over time such tactics undermine the credibility of the government. The Brexit (12) was fueled in part by a belief that Brussels is ineffective (13). Americans have similar feelings about Washington. Should the 115th Congress tighten the loopholes activists exploit, it could help to restore trust in government.