Many people and activists have asked us about how FFTF is effective at online campaigning. So we’re launching a first draft of a FAQ on the topic, in the hope that it’s helpful. We decided to focus in this post on the first part of political debate – connecting people in the digital age to the policymaking process itself.
What is Fight for the Future? What’s your mission?
Our mission is to protect and expand the Internet’s transformative power to make the world better. We do that by explaining the most important issues facing the Internet, and organizing people to get involved. You’ve probably heard of many of the issues we’ve worked on, including the fight to stop the TPP, the Apple vs FBI issue, stopping SOPA & PIPA, and the victory for net neutrality at the FCC.
Why does Fight for the Future organize people to contact policymakers?
Because too often, policymakers only hear from lobbyists and their allies. This creates a constant political bias favoring the rich and powerful.
Lobbyists’ main source of power is their ability to create a sort of bubble around regulators and elected officials, where only certain viewpoints are allowed in. By organizing large numbers of real people to speak up, we can puncture that bubble, win campaigns, and do our part to fight back against this difficult-to-root-out (but powerful) form of corruption.
How does Fight for the Future help people contact policymakers, and participate in the political process?
In very simple terms, we start by building a page or a site that explains the issue. Then we come up with some way people can get involved online. That is, if somebody reads our page and agrees with us, what’s something they can do that will have an impact? We build tools that make it easy for people to email, call, tweet at, file comments with, or otherwise contact relevant officials. We often try to be more creative than simply running petitions.
Once the page and the action tool are ready, we send it to our list of members, and to press and allies who can help us spread the word.
Why does Fight for the Future build special tools for contacting policymakers? Why not link directly to government sites?
For many of our campaigns, we make tools that collect people’s comments on our site and then submit them to government sites. There’s a few reasons why we do this.
First, government sites are often confusing and terribly designed. Sometimes it almost seems intentional, to bury important issues, and scare away participation. By building a special contact tool, we can make it straightforward to participate.
Second, government websites are often old and unreliable. To give one example, when John Oliver asked his TV audience to contact the FCC about net neutrality, the FCC’s servers crashed. Hundreds of thousands of people trying to weigh in arrived at a broken site and gave up. Their voices went unheard. By making contact tools, we can guarantee that our page will stay up. Then we can submit the comments when the creaky government site comes back online—slowly, if necessary, to not overload it. So, when we put up a page asking people to submit comments to the FCC, we were able to successfully help submit close to 4 million comments.
Finally, it’s rare that issues get settled in one fell swoop. So it’s important to build a committed circle of people who can participate over time. Building our own contact tool lets us send updates to people who participate.
Why does Fight for the Future provide pre-written text? Why not let people write in their own words?
We usually write the message we would send first, much like a petition. It helps give people an idea of why we’re doing this, the full scope of what we are actually advocating for, and it makes things clearer for policymakers. When people use our letters, they are signing on to the whole statement. And, we usually let people edit these messages, and many do.
When people write their own long, thoughtful messages that include personal stories and well-founded arguments, that’s ideal. But, just as signing a petition is a serious statement, sending a pre-written letter is meaningful too. Someone is saying, “I agree with this, and I add my name.” That is important and it carries weight with policymakers.
What if somebody enters incorrect information?
We want people to fill out all their details (like email, name, and address) correctly, because if they don’t it sends the wrong message. So we encourage them to.
But sometimes, there’s some small percentage of people who are in a rush or don’t feel comfortable sharing all of their personal information. So they’ll skip certain fields, or enter something random. This isn’t the end of the world. First, there isn’t much we can do about it, short of having people fax us a notarized copy of their petition signature (which would be silly!) Second, people enter incorrect info on government websites as well. And finally, the policymakers we’re contacting weigh these kinds of comments the way they should, based on an understanding that the public includes people with wildly different levels of attention, time, care, and preparation.
What if the people signing don’t live in the same country as the policymakers you’re targeting?
Every policymaker in the world hears from multinational corporations all the time—and they listen, perhaps much more than they should!
So unless there’s some formal or legal reason to exclude people, we usually won’t. The internet is global, so policy in any country (especially the US) affects people around the world.
What if the people who write in don’t understand the issue?
We do our best to explain each campaign in straightforward terms. But learning about politics is a process. Taking action could be the first step to becoming interested in an issue and learning more. Oftentimes, people in elite circles unfairly suggest that people don’t understand something they’re signing. That’s an ad hominem attack that doesn’t match with reality.
We hear from a lot of people who contacted their member of Congress for the first time on one of our campaigns. It’s a really important experience, and it motivates people to get more deeply involved. We’d rather somebody new to an issue take action, and learn more later, than to shy away from doing anything because they don’t feel fully informed.
What if the people taking action are really young / old / etc?
One of the things we dislike the most is when people try to dismiss our campaigns by saying “oh, all your action takers were [teenagers / college kids / pre-teens / etc].”
We don’t think your age makes your opinion less valid and we don’t discriminate against people because of their age. Even pre-teens will be voters within a decade. And if anything, many young people have both a larger stake in the Internet’s future (because it will be a bigger part of their lives) and a better understanding of it (because it already is).
Most policymakers get that, and listen.
Does Fight for the Future ever send fake information (names, emails, etc?)
No. It’s wrong, it would gain us nothing, and it would be relatively easy for policymakers to determine we were doing this, just by looking at the data in clever ways or contacting a sample. So there’s no reason for us to do it, since it would hurt our credibility.
What does Fight for the Future do to discourage fake submissions or “spam”?
We have aggressive anti-spam monitoring software to prevent fake submissions on every campaign. It’s something we take very seriously because it matters generally that we guard against all kinds of attacks. Lots of spam or fake addresses are easy to programmatically filter out. But, we also have to be weary of those who want to do us harm and launch a malicious attack. We are always researching and using the latest industry tools to fight spam.
What kinds of campaigns has Fight for the Future built contact tools for?
The three most famous are our campaigns against unchecked NSA mass surveillance, our campaign for net neutrality (battleforthenet.com/sept10th), and our campaign to stop SOPA & PIPA. We use our contact congress tool a lot, and even offer it as a service for other groups to use. You can see most of our big campaigns on our homepage.
Recently, we helped submit 80,000 comments in one day, on a request for comment about copyright policy that had gone under the radar until we discovered it. We collaborated on that campaign with Channel Awesome, some awesome Youtube creators who have a pretty popular channel. One video they made had over 1.6M views. Another had over 400,000 and they’d been running a “Where’s the Fair Use” campaign independently for a while, and building steam. So when we decided to work together, we were put our related efforts together and build something to help people submit comments within a matter of hours.
For perspective, on net neutrality we drove 760,000 comments to the FCC in one day, which was a product of weeks and months of organizing in a coalition of groups. So 80,000 is a huge success, and one of the biggest campaigns we’ve run this year, but on a different scale from the other kinds of organizing we do.
What are some issues that come up when interfacing with government websites?
Many government agencies use old, outdated software that was never meant to handle the volume of submissions that often arises when the public becomes seriously engaged.
In some cases, the huge amount of viral traffic driven by our campaigns has crashed entire government web servers, causing service outages. Sending in submissions as we receive them sometimes means huge “spikes” of traffic that can take their servers down if a ton of submissions come in all at once.
Over time, we’ve developed techniques to minimize the possibility that our campaigns could cause downtime for government agencies. Our most effective technique is to queue up user submissions in our own servers and send them to the government in a steady stream, instead of sending everything through in real-time.
Of course, this isn’t perfect, and sometimes a government website will still go down despite our best efforts. Another benefit to staging user submissions on our own servers is that we don’t lose these in the case of government downtime–we can wait for the server to come back up and then resend the submissions that couldn’t go through before.
In extreme cases, when government sites are simply unable to handle electronic submissions reliably, we go old school and send them as faxes!
How can government websites improve to deal with more public participation?
Anyone who operates a website has to deal with the possibility of high traffic volume, but unfortunately government IT workers with limited budgets are often unable to keep up with the demands of a modern internet. For example, the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) is nearly 20 years old and was simply not designed to handle the large amounts of comment traffic that started with their Open Internet proposal and continues to this day.
Fight for the Future is dedicated to expanding public participation on important civic matters in the Internet era. For this to work, we need our government agencies to prioritize modernizing their tech infrastructure. In the case of the FCC, they turned to a private company (Zendesk) to help supplement their ability to handle user submissions, and are currently working to modernize the ECFS system. In general, we support efforts to make government systems and APIs more available to the public.
We realize that change doesn’t happen overnight, and we try to be courteous of existing technical limitations. During high-traffic campaigns, we often reach out to government agencies to make sure there are no problems and that the public comments are being processed efficiently.
Why not deliver the comments on paper? Or send them one petition with signatures?
We’ve found that raw data really matters, and that agencies don’t count the numbers faithfully unless you deliver them directly as requested. Also, these comments are often public, so that if you submit them correctly journalists and academics can access them. That kind of transparency is a good thing in general, and it often helps win campaigns, by making people’s input more visible.
Has the Copyright Office, the FCC, or other agencies object to receiving so many messages?
Nope. Again, this rarely becomes an issue. And when tech teams at government agencies want to be contacted in a different way, they reach out.
What issues do you work on?
Fighting censorship, in the US
and around the world. Fighting for net neutrality. Working for an
internet where people have privacy and security. Stopping the TPP and
other undemocratic trade agreements. Check out our campaigns.
How does Fight for the Future choose what campaigns it takes on, like why did you choose to help people contact the copyright office regarding DMCA abuse?
We get involved with issues when we see control over online speech and creativity go towards big special interests and away from individuals. We got involved with the DMCA abuse issue because we’ve been seeing how people who make art and music online are unfairly targeted by companies that abuse the DMCA to take down creative work and political speech. This has been happening since the DMCA was passed, but it has intensified, as more and more people got access to audiences on sites like Soundcloud and Youtube.
And, since the people at Channel Awesome were running an amazing campaign, we saw how we could jump in to support them.
And right now is a critical moment for the issue, because the biggest media companies (such as Comcast/NBC/Universal and their industry lobbies the MPAA and RIAA) are pushing for site blocking and “take-down-and-stay-down” rules that would make the consequences of DMCA abuse even worse.
Is Fight for the Future against artists, musicians and filmmakers?
Hell no. Fight for the Future’s campaign director Evan Greer supported her family for years as a touring musician, before she came to work with us. Many of us are musicians and artists and have been involved in independent music and art scenes for our entire adult lives.
For many of us, our love of music and independent music culture was the very thing that got us started in activism.
If you ever hear that somebody is “against artists” because of where they stand on copyright, be skeptical. There is a long history of the biggest media companies (like Fox, Disney, and NBC/Comcast/Universal) pursuing their own interests by pretending to protect artists. The lobbyists for these companies (MPAA and RIAA) are among the most famous and theatrical liars in the lobbying business. The MPAA’s Jack Valenti once compared home video to a serial killer, as he tried to persuade Congress to ban the VCR. The MPAA’s current leader Chris Dodd broke his promise to never become a lobbyist when he took the job. There’s a lot more to be said on this front.
How is Fight for the Future funded?
We’re funded by an even mix of grassroots donations, foundation grants, large donors, and donations from small and medium-sized businesses. We don’t accept funding from the largest tech companies (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, etc) and we attack them publicly without hesitation.
Who are you mysterious superheroes, anyway?
The founders Holmes Wilson and Tiffiniy Cheng are from a small city in Massachusetts where they met in highschool and started working on activism, participatory politics, and open source software in their early twenties.
The rest of the team are activists, coders and artists from a really wide range of backgrounds, who share a common love for fighting for the public interest against arbitrary corporate & government power.
Visit our about page for short bios on the whole team, and our board.
How do I learn more about what you do?
The best way to learn more is to see us in action, and the best way to do that is to sign up for our list. You can unsubscribe at any time.
Can I make a donation?
Yes! You can donate here.