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We Won the Internet! What’s Next?

The tech world has emphatically proven that its voice can move mountains in Washington.


For everyone who cares about the future of an open Internet, today is a day of celebration. The Federal Communications Commission’s vote for net neutrality will not only allow today’s startups to compete and grow and create new jobs, it will also allow future generations of innovators to develop world-changing technologies that we can’t yet even imagine.

This victory was especially meaningful for the thousands of startups whose combined voices convinced the FCC to take action. Many find themselves wondering where we go from here, and how we can use that newfound power to drive positive change in the future. To answer that question, let’s look at how we got here, and what the net neutrality fight has taught us.

More than just SOPA/PIPA 2.0

For many observers, the Internet’s massive response to 2011’s SOPA/PIPA legislation represents both the founding moment and the high-water mark of the tech community’s political engagement. The scope and coordination of the online protests that followed introduction of those bills surprised lawmakers who had not realized that tech companies were able to muster such powerful civic engagement.

The net neutrality movement that has dominated headlines for the past year struggled at first to break free from comparisons to SOPA/PIPA — even within the tech policy community, many doubted that Internet users would generate enough momentum to reverse the FCC’s initial watered-down plan.

How quickly things change. Starting last fall, net neutrality began to gather steam behind an online protest — the “Internet slowdown” — that echoed SOPA/PIPA’s “Internet blackout.” More than four million commenters weighed in with the FCC, an overwhelming majority of which supported a proposal to reclassify broadband as a common carrier service — an idea once considered preposterously unlikely among the telecom elite of Washington, D.C.

And after numerous attempts by big telecom to snatch some victory from the jaws of defeat, the FCC voted today to approve the most comprehensive net neutrality plan in history, one rooted in the Commission’s Title II common carrier authority.

Be proactive

The net neutrality effort resembles the SOPA/PIPA movement in several ways. Both involved an unexpectedly strong public response to a policy that would have undermined the continued vitality of the Internet ecosystem. Both were spurred on by digital activists and online, grassroots community engagement.

But in other ways, net neutrality represents the next phase in the Internet community’s political maturity. While SOPA/PIPA involved convincing Congress not to act (read: to behave as it normally does), the net neutrality movement had to convince three unelected officials to adopt a policy that was fiercely opposed by an industry far more well-funded and adept at D.C. lobbying than the MPAA. This time, against all odds, tech put forward an affirmative agenda, and won.

The tech community is made up of innovators and entrepreneurs — people who see yes where others see no. We need to bring that same attitude to our political engagement, working toward policies that make things better, not just fighting back against potential harm.

Stay at the table

SOPA/PIPA and net neutrality both showed that the tech world can effectively mobilize and react when confronted with existential threats. But if the tech community wants to take the next step in shaping the political landscape in which it operates, we must be willing and able to set the agenda. To do this, we must engage with Washington more regularly, and pay closer attention to seemingly smaller issues that nonetheless impact how the Internet functions.

Of course, most startups simply don’t have the time or resources to spend influencing policy that big telecom and other entrenched industries do. That’s where organizations like Engine can help, maintaining regular dialogues with policy makers and harnessing the combined voices of hundreds of startups. Which brings up our next lesson …

Small startups speak with a big voice

Unlike during SOPA/PIPA, many of the larger and more established tech companies stayed out of the net neutrality fight altogether. That left it to smaller startups to take the lead in convincing both the FCC and elected officials to support net neutrality.

This made it much harder for opponents to argue against Title II without appearing to be against startups — and the good jobs they create all over the country. And while net neutrality proved to be a surprisingly partisan issue, in general, both parties want to be known as “the party of tech,” and are eager to be on startups’ side.

This should prove an advantage in some upcoming fights: Both patent reform and high-skilled immigration already find support on both sides of the aisle. And many of the issues that will impact the tech world in the coming years don’t yet have clearly drawn political lines, giving us all a chance to proactively define them as bipartisan.

Forge partnerships outside of tech

Today’s victory was the result of a massive team effort that included not just tech organizations like Etsy, Kickstarter, Vimeo, and Foursquare, but also diverse groups like the National Association of Realtors, the Future of Music Coalition and the National Hispanic Media Coalition. This allowed us to simultaneously articulate the importance of an open Internet to high-tech startups and traditional mom-and-pop businesses; to independent media companies and civic organizations; to students, artists and working families.

As the walls between the tech industry and every other aspect of American life continue to disappear, we need to make clear to policy makers that these are not just tech issues. These issues affect Americans from all walks of life. And the way we can do that is by continuing to build diverse coalitions and looking for partners in unexpected places.

With net neutrality, the tech world has emphatically proven that its voice can move mountains in Washington. If we want to put that voice to more regular use, the opportunity is limitless. Now it’s on all of us to figure out how we want to use it next.


Evan Engstrom is the policy director at Engine, a nonprofit that supports the growth of technology entrepreneurship through economic research, policy analysis and advocacy on local and national issues. Reach him @evanmengstrom.

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