How the Web Was Won

Ten lessons from the underdogs’ victory

A year ago, if someone said an upstart coalition fighting for net neutrality would beat Comcast and Verizon, most would have laughed or just rolled their eyes.

On January 14, 2014, we’d just lost a major lawsuit and were up against the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. Obama was at the Comcast CEO’s house so often that he joked, “the only thing I haven’t done in this house is have Seder.” They had millions of dollars, hundreds of lobbyists, and a literal seat at the table. We had a lot of groups with passion, creativity, expertise and resolve…but not the special-interest firepower of Washington.

What looked like a disparate coalition became a well-oiled machine that was connected across the country, smart on policy, and loud in the media and across the Internet, mobilizing millions. Like most overnight success stories, this one was a decade in the making. This coalition of dozens of nonprofits had online organizers, next generation civil rights activists, policy wonks, communications and strategy experts and forward-thinking funders.

It was a beautiful piece of progressive machinery that on February 26, 2015 smacked down the telecom lobby with a victory for freedom of expression, levelling the playing field for all Americans.

How did we do it? Here are ten elements of the campaign that led to our victory against all odds.

We didn’t take no for an answer

At every point in the campaign, our targets at the FCC, White House and Congress told us we were either unrealistic, too aggressive, ill-directed, or poorly timed. But it turns out that what we were doing, at every stage, was exactly right. And just when we were nearly collapsing in frustration, they cracked, not us. Remember the positioning of your naysayers.

Citizen protest

Citizens protest in support of Net Neutrality in 2014. Photo courtesy Free Press.

We made our message

The opposition wanted to make it an issue of over-regulation and free markets. But we knew that net neutrality, once framed right, resonated with ordinary Americans as an issue of free speech, opportunity, diversity and innovation. Research showed that despite the conservative media narrative throughout the year, this was still how people thought about the open Internet. If you frame your issue right, you can even overcome the barrier of an awful term like net neutrality!
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