The Obama White House has worked directly with online activists to pressure the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the internet. The Commission is expected to vote on the president’s “net neutrality” policy on Thursday.
According to White House visitor logs, on September 23, 2014, Obama senior internet advisor David Edelman met with 30 netroots activists and executives from Spitfire Strategies. Spitfire is a public relations firm that received over $2 million from the Ford Foundation since 2009 to create PR and media strategy relating to net neutrality.
During the hour-long meeting, the Obama White House appears to have collaborated with the netroots activists and PR media professionals to create the notion that the public truly wants Title II regulation applied to the internet. The activists have even celebrated President Obama’s loyalty to their cause in emails to their factions of supporters.
According to the White House visitors logs, participants at the meeting included representatives from the Free Press, Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, Daily Kos, Public Knowledge and several others. Individual meeting attendees also included PR, media and campaign strategists Michael Khoo, Karley Kranich and Cheryl Leanza from Spitfire Strategies and A Learned Hand, as well as Martha Allen with The Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press.
Six weeks later in November, Obama announced his Title II internet regulation proposal in a video statement. The president’s video used an ample amount of the activists’ messaging, including a fake “buffering” gag that showed viewers the well-known “site loading” circular animation.
Fight For The Future’s Evan Greer, another participant whose organization was represented at the White House in September, lauded the president for using their messaging.
One day after the video was released, he wrote to his fellow activists: “We’ve been hearing for weeks from our allies in DC that the only thing that could stop FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler from moving ahead with his sham proposal to gut net neutrality was if we could get the President to step in. So we did everything in our power to make that happen. We took the gloves off and played hard, and now we get to celebrate a sweet victory.”
“If you watch the Obama statement closely,” Greer wrote, “you’ll see many moments where he incorporates the memes and talking points we’ve built, together, as part of battleforthenet.com campaign, from the ‘buffering’ joke at the beginning to the way he talks about this as cable companies vs. the public.”
Greer continued: “Obama’s statement has this movement’s fingerprints all over it, and it wouldn’t have happened without our work together. We’re proud. You should be too. I can’t think of a better time to make your first donation to this movement.”
Two hours before the video was released, some of the activists who were present at the White House meeting in September blocked FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s home driveway.
Later that same day, White House official David Edelman–who hosted the activists in September–took part in an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. Reddit’s Campaign Manager Christopher Khosrovani was a participant at the September 23, 2014 White House meeting between netroots activists and Edelman.
Around the same time, other meeting attendees organized several protests inside and outside of the headquarters at the FCC. In one instance, they disrupted the FCC’s Open Internet proceedings. They also interrupted the press conference of the Republican FCC Commissioner, Ajit Pai.
Four days after Obama released his statement, Fight for the Future organized a protest dance party outside of FCC headquarters and Free Press mounted a “Net Neutral-i-kitty vs. Cable Boss” protest outside of the FCC another five days later.
On December 2, Holmes Wilson of Fight for the Future sent an email to activists claiming that netroots activists facilitated the circumstances for the Obama announcement in November.
“We were in close contact with the White House, and it was pretty clear they were only going to move once they were sure it was something that would gain them broad public support and have minimal downside. Our coalition created the circumstances in which they could move,” Wilson wrote.
He continued: “From the ‘buffering gag’ at the beginning to the emphasis on ‘cable companies’ (not telcos, or ISPs) Obama’s video statement was built from our memes and framing. In the emails they sent to the Organizing For America list, they cribbed exact phrasing from FFTF emails.”
Wilson wrote about the protest activities of the DC-based group Popular Resistance who protested outside Chairman Wheeler’s home. “We’ve also been extremely impressed by the work of Popular Resistance, a DC-based group that excels at holding officials (like FCC’s Tom Wheeler) accountable through cordial but uncompromising protests outside the FCC and even outside Wheeler’s home.”
The activists’ pressure did not stop. By December 8, Free Press protested outside of the FCBA Annual Dinner honoring FCC Chairman Wheeler. The Daily Kos’s Carissa Miller, an attendee at the White House meeting, wrote about and photographed the protest.
Three days later Netroots activists, led by PopularResistance.org, disrupted an FCC Open Meeting and unfurled a “Reclassify Now” banner. The most recent protest by PopularResistance.org’s Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers occurred at a February 10 press conference hosted by Commissioner Ajit Pai. Spitfire Strategies’ Karley Kranich, another attendee at the White House meeting, tweeted a picture of protestors being ejected from the press conference.
The over 300 pages of new regulations are under seal and have only been viewed by administration officials — they were never allowed to be seen by the public. However, Wheeler already confirmed the policy allows the FCC to regulate the internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. This is the same legislation that the FCC used to break up Ma Bell in the 1980’s. Title II lets the FCC choose what “charges” and “practices” are “just and reasonable.”
Republicans, including House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, have sent a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler about the influence the White House may have on the agency, regarding net neutrality. The House Oversight Committee is holding a hearing on Wednesday regarding the relationship between the FCC and the White House.
Commissioner Ajit Pai told The Daily Caller earlier this month that there is “unprecedented involvement of the executive branch” in the FCC’s decision making.
Johnson told reporters that Republicans want to know why Wheeler suddenly changed his mind on the net neutrality issue and now supports further regulation on the internet.
“We certainly want to find out to what extent [Wheeler’s] change of heart was actually his own or whether there was influence by the White House. [The FCC] is supposed to be an independent agency and so we’re trying to find the information,” said Johnson. “We want to find the communication between himself and the White House—his agency and the White House and see whether this truly was an independent act.”
As Wednesday’s Oversight hearing on the netroots activists’ protests and the White House’s involvement inches closer, The Wall Street Journal points out that Obama’s role could raise “legal as well as political questions.”
“Those harmed by the new rules could argue in court that political pressure made the agency’s actions ‘arbitrary and capricious.’”