2014 CGCS Visiting Scholar James Losey discusses the role of institutional advocacy in shaping internet policy. James will address this topic during his October 30th talk “How the Internet and Activism Changes Policy.”
From the Black Thursday protest against the Communications Decency Act (CDA) in 1996 to the Internet Slowdown in November 2014, internet activism has a rich history of engaging in internet policy. With regard to internet policy and activism, as Stefania Milan notes in her Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring Social Change, the internet is both a tool for activism and a target of contention.
Literature on the subject of the internet as a tool for activism is plentiful. In her book, Milan writes that the “internet is no longer just a tool for activist networking and mobilizing but has become the main platform for action, recruitment, and identification.” According to Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, the freeloader dilemma requiring centralized organization for the logic of collective action is mitigated through the lower costs of digitally mediated individual action supporting a logic of connective action. By contrast, Evgeny Morozov employs the term “slacktivism” to critique online engagement as a low-cost activity that detracts from meaningful activism. However understanding the internet as a target of contention, which is a core issue of internet policy debates, requires understanding the role of advocacy.
One step toward understanding advocacy’s role is to distinguish between types of actors. Milan borrows from Sydney Tarrow by describing actors based on position. “Inside” actors are those participating in the policy-making process while “outside” actors are those with a confrontational relationship to the policy-making process. An internet blackout as a protest can be an outsider tactic, but recent internet policy debates demonstrate that internet users are actively engaging in internet policy debates in multiple ways. Rather than distinguish between actors, Sabine Lang differentiates between public and institutional advocacy. Where public advocacy includes organizing protests or mobilizing citizens, institutional advocacy includes gaining access to governance bodies and influencing decision-making processes.
Less visible institutional advocacy efforts have been a critical component of recent internet policy campaigns. For example, on January 18,2012, over 115,000 websites participated in a voluntary blackout protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act copyright legislation. In a demonstration that paid homage to the protests against the CDA, participating websites included Wikipedia, Reddit and Tumblr, while Google censored the doodle on their .com webpage. The blackout called on users to contact their representatives about the legislation and Congressional staff members have told me that the phones were ringing off the hook during the protest. The public engaging with the institution of Congress complimented traditional lobbying efforts. For example, Google significantly increased their lobbying expenditures during the SOPA debates, while opponents like Wikipedia began lobbying for the first time. The spending of those who supported SOPA and PIPA, however, far exceeded those opposing the measures, demonstrating the value of a combination of pubic and institutional advocacy. During the so-called internet black out, members of Congress and the Senate shifted their support for the once inevitable legislation. By January 20th both bills were effectively defeated, and the blackout no doubt played a major role.
A similar effort this year demonstrates how internet users are engaging with institutional decision making. On September 10, 2014, Fight for the Future and Demand Progress, two organizations at the epicenter of the online activism against SOPA and PIPA, led an “internet slowdown” to show support for network neutrality and encourage the FCC to codify network neutrality. The action created a collective online identity through avatars and calls to action on webpages that such as the PIPA/SOPA protests, encouraging users to engage with institutions. At one point, the protest was generating one thousand calls per minute to Congress. Additionally, the FCC received a record number of comments, with the New York Times reporting 3.7 million comments while Fight for the Future counts 4.7 million comments (counting multiple comments included in a single PDF as individual comments).
Institutional advocacy is an essential part of information policy interventions. Knowledge of FCC rule-making proceedings, combined with public outreach, helped enable internet users to engage with the network neutrality debate. The calls generated by the SOPA/PIPA protests, an example of institutional advocacy by individual actors, reinforced the issues raised by internet companies, think tanks, and human rights organizations on Capitol Hill. Understanding the role of institutional advocacy is important not only for understanding how a combination of tactics influences changes to internet policy, but also for recognizing how a variety of actors engage in a debate.