“When it comes to protecting Internet freedom, the Christian Coalition and MoveOn respectfully agree,” read the New York Times ad. MoveOn was the largest progressive organization in America, and the Christian Coalition a key group for conservative religious activists. They’d never teamed up on anything before.
The two groups played a key role in saving Net Neutrality over a decade ago—the right to keep the Internet available as an open commons for all. With Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Ajit Pai publicly committed to ending Net Neutrality, it will likely take similar cross-political alliances to save it.
Here’s what’s at stake: Imagine if you were talking on the phone and Verizon or ATT decided they didn’t like where your conversation was going. You’d be in the middle of a sentence and suddenly disconnected. Or maybe they didn’t like the person you were talking to, or deemed the subject too controversial. You’d be unable to connect or your conversation would become so slow and poor quality you’d give up and call someone else. Or maybe you lived in an area of the country where they didn’t want to offer telephone service. So you’d be unable to call at all. The telecom companies would justify all this by explaining that the fiber optic lines or wireless frequencies were simply their private property. They had a right, they’d say, to do whatever they wanted with them.
They can’t do this because telephone service has long been held to common access standards. The Internet has similarly developed and flourished as a commons open to everyone, through what we’ve come to call Net Neutrality. But George W. Bush’s FCC categorized the new communications technologies differently, considering them the property of their physical carriers. Following this decision, Verizon refused to distribute a text message alert from NARAL Pro Choice America and AT&T muted singer Eddie Vedder’s criticism of Bush during a live Pearl Jam webcast. Telecom companies have also wanted the right to charge more for websites or applications to load faster, while relegating other sites to second-class service. Such a shift would devastate nonprofits, small businesses, and all manner of political advocacy groups, since they can’t compete with more lucrative sites.
But Net Neutrality got saved a decade ago by an unlikely coalition spearheaded by Christian Coalition and MoveOn, and similar alliances could save it again. The coalition behind the ad began with a former Army Ranger captain and Christian Coalition activist named Joseph McCormick. After losing his Republican congressional campaign and serving as a 2000 Bush delegate, Joseph began to recoil at the polarization of American political debate. He dropped out of active politics and retraced Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey across America, interviewing a mix of ordinary citizens and political leaders across the ideological spectrum. The discussions were so rich that Joseph decided to create gatherings that would bring together key organizational leaders of similarly differing perspectives.
Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs got involved early on, cosponsoring the second gathering of what would be called Reuniting America, in December 2005. The other main cosponsor was MoveOn co-founder Joan Blades, who had worked as a mediator and was strongly drawn to the idea. The retreat assembled leaders from organizations representing 70 million Americans, including conservative groups like the American Legion, the Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Christian Coalition; progressive ones like the Sierra Club, MoveOn, and Common Cause, plus the National Council of Churches, the League of Woman Voters; and the massive seniors’ organization, the AARP. Roberta and Joan quickly hit it off.
Four months later, Roberta couldn’t make it to a Reuniting America steering committee meeting, so she sent her daughter, Michele Combs, Christian Coalition’s communications director and a former head of South Carolina’s Young Republicans. Michele and Joan also connected immediately. Michele was going through a divorce, and Joan had written a book on cooperative custody. Both were moms, so they talked about their children. Despite vast political differences, they instantly became friends. “We connected just talking the way women do,” said Michele. “We have lots of commonalities.”
At the next retreat, on energy security, Michele connected again with Joan, and with Al and Tipper Gore, who participated, along with scientists, energy industry leaders, and activists of diverse perspectives. “It was in a little hippie town an hour north of Denver,” said Michele, “with peace signs everywhere. I was a little shocked. Then I walked in and the first people I met were Al and Tipper. But she was just a very kind person, compassionate and honest. I liked Al too, even though I didn’t vote for him. When you meet someone intimately with just 30 other people, you have a chance to see the good in them. They went through a lot.”
The retreats fostered the friendship between Joan and Michele, and more. Soon after meeting, Joan got the idea of a joint political effort to try and save Net Neutrality. From the beginning, the Internet had developed with all content having equal access and phone and telecom companies supplying the physical routes for data to travel, but not being allowed to favor or disfavor particular websites, applications, or data. But as high-speed Internet use took off, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and TimeWarner lobbied to control all that their media carried. This could let them auction off the right for websites or applications whose owners wanted them to load faster, while relegating other sites to second-class service. Such a shift would have devastated nonprofits, small businesses, and all kinds of political advocacy groups, which couldn’t afford the rates that the most lucrative sites could pay. The telecom companies would also be able to potentially censor content, as in the Verizon/NARAL and ATT/Eddie Vedder cases. In August 2005, the telecom companies got President Bush’s FCC to eliminate the requirement that all content providers be treated equally.
The next spring, the battle moved to Congress, with the telecom companies spending millions to change the rules permanently. They got the House to pass a bill that would have confirmed the elimination of Net Neutrality. It looked as if the battle was lost. But a word-of-mouth revolt began working to block similar Senate legislation. Prominent bloggers of all perspectives took up the cause, including apolitical ones covering food, sports, and technology. In April 2006, the media reform group FreePress.net launched a new Save the Internet Coalition including the AARP, MoveOn, Gun Owners of America, American Library Association, National Religious Broadcasters, Common Cause, Service Employees International Union, and some of the key individuals who’d first developed the Internet, plus online video gamers and prominent musicians. Opponents delivered petitions to swing Senators. But time was running out.
Then Joan proposed to Michele that their two organizations collaborate on the issue. MoveOn had already taken a leading role. The Christian Coalition had done some low-key lobbying but had issued no public statements. When Joan broached the subject, Michele promptly got the go-ahead from her organization to participate. They ran the New York Times ad, as well as a joint Washington Times opinion piece. Roberta wrote a separate Washington Post op-ed in with the head of leading pro-choice group NARAL, a long-time political opponent. Michele and Joan then delivered a petition with over a million signatures at a Washington, D.C., press conference, with Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan and Republican Senator Olympia Snowe. Michele also testified before Congressional committees and worked with MoveOn’s media person. Because the groups were such strange bedfellows, their joint efforts attracted far more attention than if either had acted on its own. “If we’d just done this with other conservative groups,” said Michele, “it wouldn’t have had nearly the impact.”
Joan agreed. “It’s nice to not always be predictable,” she said. “When MoveOn shows up, people expect what we’re going to say. But when MoveOn and the Christian Coalition show up together, people think, ‘If these guys can agree on this, maybe it’s something I should pay attention to.’ You get a totally different response.”
Although the groups took heat from some usual allies, they persisted, and the legislation deadlocked in the critical Senate committee. Political momentum shifted further after President Obama appointed FCC Commissioners who enshrined Net Neutrality as policy, although his FCC Chair had to be pressured by grassroots groups. Without Joan and Michele’s friendship and political partnership, an equal-access Internet might well have vanished into cyberspace. It will probably take similarly unlikely coalitions to save it once again.
Adapted from Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin’s Press).