After more than a decade of waiting, net neutrality has finally gone mainstream.
The term isn’t new. A general reference to the idea that the Internet’s data must be treated equally—and that its providers can’t pick and choose when to charge more—the term “net neutrality” was first coined 13 years ago, and the concept behind it’s far older than that. But like an item from the Bill of Rights, it’s a vital concept from an earlier age, one that seems to need defending each generation.
This year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said it would spend 60 days listening to the public’s opinion on net neutrality. Reasonable, right? But we’re talking about the Internet here, and the floodgates were opened. Activists jumped on board. John Oliver urged Internet trolls to join in. The FCC’s site crashed repeatedly under the surge. The commission extended its deadline by an additional 58 days. When all was said and done, the FCC received nearly 4 million comments—then admitted it had undercounted by several hundred thousand. Even President Obama weighed in—after the comment period closed, of course, but it was a nice sentiment. We won’t find out what the FCC will do until next year: Will it convert the Internet into a public utility, as many activists want? Or will we see some sort of muddied, hybrid solution?
While net neutrality dominated the news, it was hardly all that happened in Internet freedom in 2014. Turkey took a major step backward, blocking Twitter, YouTube, and dozens of other sites in an apparent attempt to censor commentary on government corruption. The world is still reacting to former National Security Agency (NSA) systems administrator Edward Snowden’s revelations of the agency’s drastic online surveillance programs. And Brazil passed the Marco Civil, a landmark Internet Bill of Rights that should inspire Internet activists around the world.
Here are the heroes of Internet freedom that played a major role in saving the Web as we know for at least another year.
10) Everyone who runs a small ISP
It’s no secret that in the world of business that it’s usually much easier being a big guy than a little guy. And when it comes to Internet service providers (ISPs), the big guys, the ones who make most of the money, are the most insufferable. Don’t take our word for it: The three biggest ISPs in the country, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon, made the final four in Consumerist’s “Worst Company in America” poll. (Comcast took top, uh, honors.) So you shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised that those three—alongside other industry heavyweights, such as RCN, CenturyLink, AT&T, and Frontier Wireless—all refuse to support net neutrality. Maybe it’s tough to blame them: They’re not interested in your customer satisfaction, and were net neutrality to go by the wayside, they’d probably make more money.
While net neutrality dominated the news, it was hardly all that happened in Internet freedom in 2014.
But contrast that with some of the little guys. In an informal survey, eight smaller ISPs all said that they did support net neutrality. A single one, Bristol BVU, didn’t respond. But Google Fiber (yes, Google here counts as a little guy, at least as a burgeoning ISP), iFIBER, Chattanooga Electric Power Bureau, Lafayette Utilities Service, Wave Broadband, Bristol BVU, Sonic.net, and XMission all said they’d rather preserve the Internet’s basic principles than possibly scrape some extra profit.
So while it’s awfully hard for the little guys—especially in light of the Time Warner-Comcast merger—at least we know who’s on our side.
9) Susan Crawford
Yes, millions of Americans want net neutrality. But few, if any, express why this issue is important as well as Susan Crawford, described by Cory Doctorow as the country’s “best commentator on network policy and network neutrality.”
An economic realist with an eye towards equality, Crawford is eager to point out that without net neutrality, Internet providers would “systematically provide extraordinarily expensive services for the richest people in America, leave out a huge percentage of the population and, in general, try to make their own profits at the expense of social good.” That’s not great for the U.S., which Crawford says “should be looking the rest of the world in the rearview mirror,” rather than debating whether we should even make the Internet a public utility.
There’s even been newspaper editorials and White House petitions to elect Crawford to the chair of the FCC. While that seems too idealistic to ever come true, many Internet activists would see it as an improvement over current chair Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable industry.
The history of the Internet is riddled with martyrs who pushed its boundaries, but none are more tragic than that of Reddit cofounder Aaron Swartz, the young activist who took his own life in January 2013 as he faced years in prison for downloading scores of academic articles. Attempts to create “Aaron’s law,” which would reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which Swartz was accused of breaking, went unheeded.
What did happen, though, is that filmmaker Brian Knappenberger released The Internet’s Own Boy, a sensitive, nuanced, and riveting portrait of Swartz, his life, and his ideals. Appropriately, Knappenberger released his documentary to be shared for free on the Creative Commons license, which Swartz himself helped create.
7) Cynthia Wong and Katitza Rodriguez
More than a year and a half after Snowden’s first revelations, the NSA remains unhampered by any U.S. reforms. But the agency’s most advanced programs are designed to work outside our borders.
So it’s not surprising, all things considered, that the U.N. has passed a non-binding resolution in favor of privacy—or that it took this long. But considering the U.S., as well as the four countries that house the NSA’s main partner agencies—the U.K., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—are all members of the U.N., the group’s officially stance in favor of international online privacy is a pretty big deal.
Of course, this resolution took countless people and tons of diplomatic effort. But a large part of the work came from advisors Cynthia Wong, a senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch who’s pushed for it since soon after Snowden hit the scene, and Katitza Rodriguez of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Both Wong and Rodriguez played integral roles in the U.N.’s decision to take action on this major Internet freedom issue.
6) Edward Snowden
Former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden will surely never have another year like 2013, when he fled the country to blow the whistle on a number of invasive programs. With Snowden still stuck in passport limbo with temporary asylum in Russia, a cynic could easily claim that his move did little in the long run. And that’s true, at least in Washington, D.C., as President Obama’s reforms are fairly toothless and Congress can’t agree on any NSA reform bill.
Photo via Citizenfour
Despite not physically leaving his new motherland for more than a year, however, Snowden has become history’s greatest cheerleader for what he says is the real way to hamper the NSA: encryption. He’s beamed his face into South by Southwest, Ted Talks, and seemingly every privacy-focused conference (videos of which all made their way online for the masses) to preach that it’s not actually that hard for common people to encrypt their emails, files, and chats, and that widespread encryption—not legislation—is the best way to protect your privacy.
It’s worked, too. Cybersecurity and encryption expert Bruce Schneier recently estimated that 700 million people have taken steps to hide their tracks online since hearing of Snowden.
Nobody doubts that when you’re thinking about Internet freedom, free speech is paramount. But what about the other side of that coin, when someone wants to share material online that could wreck your life? Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami, is likely the world’s leading proponent of the criminalization of revenge porn (or, as she prefers to call it, “non-consensual pornography”)—the sketchy act of putting intimate photos intended for a private audience in display for anyone to see.
Admittedly, it’s a tough to draw the line. ACLU lawyer Lee Rowland previously told the Daily Dot that when looking at revenge porn laws, she has to “focus on whether these bills criminalize the mere sharing of an image—which I think never has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing First Amendment muster—or whether it’s focused on truly malicious invaders of privacy.”
Photos via Mary Anne Franks
But you can’t doubt Franks’ results: Her laws, or at least laws that are rooted in her proposed draft legislation, are sweeping the country. By her own count, 15 states now have revenge-porn laws on the books, and all but three have passed them in the past two years. Eighteen other states, as well as Puerto Rico, are also currently considering such legislation. And her handiwork is at least somewhat in the majority of them—Franks says that she’s personally assisted lawmakers in 19 of the pending or passed bills.
4) Congressman Alessandro Molon
Over the years, plenty of Internet groups have created variants of an online Bill of Rights. But in April of 2014, Brazil became what’s believed to be the first country to sign one into law. Called Marco Civil, the legislation’s got a little bit of everything: net neutrality, privacy protections, and even provisions to save citizens from being bullied by overzealous copyright enforcement.
It’s a monumental achievement that it even exists in the first place, as it took more than a decade of wrangling and negotiations, then had to pass both houses of Brazilian Congress and get the signature of President Dilma Rousseff. Even if we devoted this entire list to the people who made Marco Civil happen, we’d run out of slots. But perhaps nobody played a bigger role in actually getting it passed in 2014 than Alessandro Molon, the congressman who spearheaded it. Carolina Rossini, vice president of International Policy and Strategy at the advocacy group Public Knowledge and native Brazilian who’s pushed for Marco Civil for years, called Molon indispensable. “Without his leadership, we would not have gotten it,” she told the Daily Dot.
Patricia Royo, Molon’s press agent, praised the bill’s forward thinking. “[Marco Civil] managed to find an equilibrium amongst the many entities involved, guaranteeing net neutrality,” she told the Daily Dot, “which is now being discussed in many countries, such as the United States, and also in the European Union.”
3) Tim Wu
As any Ralph Nader supporter will tell you, not every political candidate has to actually win an election to make a difference. But for a while, it sure looked like Tim Wu might be able to do both. Often cited as the “father of net neutrality,” Wu coined the term in a 2003 Columbia Law School paper. As he pointed out from the campaign trail, the paper’s full title, Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination, offered two possible names for his concept—meaning the public could have described either side of the coin. “I thought, ‘I’ll see which one catches on.’ I guess people chose,” he told the Daily Dot this fall.
Photo via Olivier Ezratty (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed
Eleven years after his paper’s publication, when Wu gambled that he had enough charisma to run for lieutenant governor of New York, he brought his issue to the forefront of the American news cycle like no one else could. Since New York invariably votes Democrat for governor, and the Democratic primaries in that state choose governor and lieutenant governor separately, Wu actually had a shot. Unlike any gubernatorial candidate, Wu received a glowing endorsement from the New York Times, and appeared on TV shows like the Colbert Report to talk about his pet project. He didn’t win his election, but his campaign coincided with the height of the FCC’s public comment period, allowing this ideal spokesperson to share his spotlight with one of the Internet’s most fundamental issues.
2) Laura Poitras
There has likely never been a film that captures the intersection of technology and civil liberties—and the very real risks of the people that would bring them to light—as Poitras’s Citizenfour. A pulse-pounding documentary about Edward Snowden, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of a great film journalist given direct access to a moment that would change the world. In 2013, Snowden directly reached out to Poitras to share his cache of proof of the NSA’s unbelievable Internet spying capabilities. Though the film would not come out until more than a year after the first Snowden revelations—fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald published his first Snowden story in late-spring of 2013, while Citizenfour debuted in the summer of 2014—it was worth the wait.
1) Evan Greer
Over the past few years, the activist group Fight for the Future (FFTF) has become a mobilizing machine. First famous for collecting names for a petition to block passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in late 2011, FFTF has quietly morphed into the Internet’s go-to rallying point whenever the Internet’s threatened. By now, the organization’s formula is clear: It forms alliances with like-minded groups, makes a simple, good-looking website to explain the issue, and start san embeddable widget that makes it easy for visitors to sign their names to the cause.
FFTF’s model truly came to a head in 2014, when campaign director Evan Greer launched a net neutrality campaign called Battle for the Net. Part of the campaign was a brilliant stunt, called Internet Slowdown Day. For one day only, Greer and company convinced dozens of websites—including media organizations like the Daily Dot—to adopt a “loading” GIF on their websites to simulate what life could look like if we lost net neutrality and visitors were on a site that didn’t pay for premium service.
Cleverness aside, what matters is results, which the net neutrality campaign brought in spades. More than a quarter of FCC’s nearly 4 million official comments on net neutrality (1.3 million) came directly through FFTF’s campaign, and that number doesn’t even include the number of people who saw the campaign and then shared their support for net neutrality directly with the FCC. It was, according to the FCC, the most comments the agency ever received on any issue.
Not even some of those who work closely with Greer know of her pre-FFTF background as a world-travelling singer-songwriter of, in her own words, “radical genderqueer folk-punk-mama kicking catchy singalongs for liberation.”
“My success and ability to sustain my music (and support my family doing it) was entirely dependent on the free and open Web,” she told the Daily Dot. “I think it’s really relevant to why I care so much about Internet freedom.”
Photo by davidd/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed