There’s this quote from Abraham Lincoln:
“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”
It popped into my head last week, when the House and Senate held a two-ring circus on the subject of net neutrality.
Net neutrality is a basic underlying assumption that’s been around since the beginning of the Internet. It says that all websites, apps, facebook protests, memes, blogs, and lolcats are created equal. It’s what gives all of us a voice, and prevents the companies that connect us to the Web from deciding what we can see and do once we get there.
My colleagues at Fight for the Future and I, alongside our more than 1.2 million members, have spent the better part of the last year doing everything in our power to prevent the U.S. government from throwing this principle in the trash. And it’s not just because we love lolcats. We’ve seen how the Internet gives ordinary people new kinds of power, and changes the rules of what is possible for the future of democracy.
The story of the fight for net neutrality is a story of the impossible turned into the inevitable. Just a year ago, the prospects looked pretty bleak. Verizon had just successfully sued to strike down the existing net neutrality rules -- which were pretty weak anyhow -- and the chairman of the FCC was (still is) a former cable company lobbyist. So no one was placing bets that the new rules would be better than the ones that were struck down.
But then the Internet rose up. 40,000 websites protested during the Internet Slowdown protest. Millions of people commented to the FCC. Net neutrality went viral. Protesters blockaded Chairman Tom Wheeler’s driveway, twerked on the FCC’s doorstep, rallied on the White House lawn, and unfurled banners in FCC meetings.
So when members of Congress who take some of the most money in campaign contributions from from "Big Cable" companies held cynical hearings that were transparently designed to undermine the public will on net neutrality, it didn’t take much to get our members angry. We just told them the hearings were happening, and put a livestream on our website BattleForTheNet.com alongside a tool that let people call their reps with one click.
We added a feature where, after a person talks to 10 members of Congress, they get connected to a Fight for the Future staff member, so we could personally thank them, typically in an awkward but inspiring fashion. It seemed like a great idea when we started.
By nightfall, our page had connected more than 17,000 phone calls to Congress, with some tiny fraction of those coming through to my personal cell. Turns out a tiny fraction of 17,000 is still a lot.
It was supremely time consuming, and at times wildly disruptive to my work day, but the constant stream of phone calls that I got that day gave me more hope for the future of the Internet than I’ve ever had before.
I talked to a rapper from the Bronx, a farmer from South Dakota, a high ranking Google employee, several high school students, people with disabilities, religious folks, LGBTQ activists, and grandmas. No seriously, So. Many. Grandmas. I talked to people who said they had never called Congress before about anything, and who said they didn’t follow politics much but this issue had them fired up.
It’s important to remember that our system only connected people to my cell phone *after* they had already called 10, count ‘em, TEN members of Congress. These folks I was talking to are the die hards: and they are ... well, everyone. Retirees, punk rockers, environmentalists, libertarians, librarians, entrepreneurs, gamers, car mechanics, Etsy sellers, reddit trolls, and professors all willing to do something that most of us dread: make a phone call to our elected officials.
The amazing thing is, after having been on the phone with 10 congressional staffers, these people were still excited to talk my ear off about why they cared so much about net neutrality. Each had their own reason and expressed it often emphatically, as if they were trying to convince even me, the full-time net Internet freedom activist, of the righteousness of their cause.
At the end of the day, I had a stiff neck from too much talking on my cell phone, but I had something else too. After talking to all of those supporters, I am absolutely positive that we will win this fight for net neutrality.
The people I talked to had literally nothing in common with each other except that they all cared fervently about net neutrality, and were willing to do pretty much anything to defend it. Realizing that was the exact moment when President Lincoln’s quote came into my mind. “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” The Internet as a platform for free speech and exchange of ideas has made this adage truer than ever before in history; and that’s exactly what we’re fighting to defend.
Today, Fight for the Future announced the next phase of the fight: the Internet Countdown. Every second counts. Will you join us?
Greer is the campaign director of digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future. You can follow her on twitter at @evan_greer