A year and a half ago, the Internet did something it likes to do: It got outraged. A man in Washington made a bad decision that screwed over thousands of small businesses and hundreds of thousands more consumers. He made it illegal for Americans to “unlock” their cell phones and move them to a different carrier. We cried foul, and 114,000 netizens joined us in demanding that unlocking be re-legalized.
Normally, petition-signing is the flash in the pan of Internet activism. Once the signatures are collected, we all forget our anger and go back to watching cat videos. But this time was different. A bill that the Internet demanded 17 months ago made it out of committee today and is now on its way to a Senate vote.
Believe it or not, there are people in Congress listening to the Internet. We just have to get their attention—and, more importantly, we have to keep their attention long enough to effect real change. Last year, an Internet petition opened a door, and a few of us took advantage of that opening. Here’s how:
Step 1: Make a Big Noise
What happened with the unlocking restriction demonstrates everything that’s wrong with Washington’s treatment of technology and the Internet. Namely, government officials don’t understand either.
The Librarian of Congress who refused to renew the legal exemption for unlocking is an academic, an historian, and a book expert—but not a technology expert. And yet, unbelievably, he makes the final call on which electronics are legal to modify.
His decision on unlocking was made at the urging of a bunch of telecommunications lobbyists from the CTIA—the wireless industry’s most prolific, best-funded interest group. In the end, AT&T and Verizon’s interests were placed ahead of consumers and small businesses.
The ruling made no sense to anyone with a lick of technology experience—including us. We both knew first hand what happens when someone with more money and power tries to tighten their grasp around digital freedom: back in 2005, Motorola threatened Sina with a lawsuit over cell phone unlocking. He fought, and won. So we decided to fight again.
Fueled by Reddit, Hacker News, and others, the Internet rallied around a common theme: If you bought it, you should own it. We got noticed. The White House issued a formal response calling on Congress to fix unlocking.
Suddenly, every single legislator was listening. In a matter of days, members of Congress were speaking out and authoring bills. It was a huge victory, and we thought we’d won—that we could hand the baton off to legislators, and they would run a bill towards the finish line while we celebrated from the sidelines.
We were so, so wrong.
Step 2: Be the Person Who Won’t Shut Up
Once the initial fervor died down, people—including most politicians—forgot about unlocking. Tech journalists stopped writing about it. Bills disappeared before they got to committee.
At first, we were discouraged. But our friends at EFF and Public Knowledge assured us this was typical: a petition can get attention but can’t stand alone. To get a better unlocking bill on the books, we’d need to keep being loud. We’d need to sweet-talk our way into the board rooms and conference calls where law gets made. To get anything done in Washington, you need a lobbyist to make your case over and over again, in front of the right people.
Consider this: There are over 12,000 registered lobbyists in the US and just 535 voting members in Congress. That’s a 22:1 ratio. Corporate interests have their fingers so deeply snaked into the foundations that they’ve become almost indistinguishable from the larger political machine. Just look at the career path of the CTIA’s newly-appointed CEO, Meredith Attwell Baker. Before becoming the telecommunication industry’s top lobbyist, she hopped from a senior position in the White House to lobbying for Comcast and then to working as an FCC commissioner (the government body that’s supposed to regulate the same corporations she had been lobbying for). How can a bunch of Internet upstarts compete with that kind of influence?
We didn’t have millions of dollars to spend. And though money doesn’t buy votes, it does buy access to politicians. But you know what else does? People making persistent noise on specific topics for prolonged periods of time.
So instead of buying a lobbyist, we became citizen lobbyists. This is where “Internet activism” becomes more activism and less Internet. We picked up the phone. We met with staffers. We all had full-time jobs doing other work, but we set aside some less-hectic moments to be thorns in the side of some key politicians. Can anyone become this kind of lobbyist? Maybe not. Democracy demands eternal vigilance. But many more people can lobby than try, and if you have an issue that matters to you—really, really matters—how can you not? You’ll be in good company: the EFF has resources to help.
Step 3: Play the Long Game—the Really, Really Long Game
If the wheels of justice turn slowly, the wheels of legislature follow a crushingly torpid, if sometimes erratic, path. After months of posturing about unlocking, lawmakers pursued one of the weakest bills on the table: the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act (H.R. 1123). We worked successfully with other advocates to make the bill stronger when it came in front of the Judicial Committee. And then we waited and waited for a House vote—it took almost a year.
Hours before the bill went to the floor, the bill’s author—Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)—was prevailed upon to exclude “bulk unlocking” from legal protection. What does that mean? That recyclers and refurbishers who unlock phones in large numbers would be left at risk. It didn’t make sense to us: Why should unlocking be legal for one person, and not for another? We decried the decision and withdrew our support—but the bill passed anyway.
The long game became the longer game: four more months of playing Congressional Twister™. With the bill in the House blown, we turned our sights to the Senate. We pleaded, goaded, and sat in on every phone call we could get with lawmakers for months. We even made a personal appeal to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)—the one person with the power to ink a better bill in the Senate.
And then a weird thing happened. A couple of key lawmakers started to listen. Instead of just making calls to representatives, we started receiving calls from them, too. Leahy’s office was open to negotiating a compromise, and worked closely with our group of unlocking reform advocates including Public Knowledge, Consumers Union, iFixit and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Then, just last week, Senator Leahy removed the language about “bulk unlocking” from the Senate bill entirely. Finally, we had a bill we could support. It’s by no means a perfect bill, but it’s a bill we believe reflects most of the sentiments raised by the people in the first place.
Attention Is Easy, Change Is Hard
Yes, this is a small victory on an esoteric rule. But we rallied together and refused to let the issue die. With the help of 114,000 people, we took something from the Internet and made it a bill with a shot of becoming a law. And that’s something.
It’s a great big glimmer of hope in the futility that is US lawmaking. And we’re gonna keep working on the larger issues that made something as simple as moving your own cell phone from one carrier to another illegal in the first place—like fixing copyright laws and restoring a consumer’s right to repair the things that they own.
And we need you. You know more about technology and the Internet than most members of Congress. And Congress needs to have conversations with people who understand software, firmware, and hardware.
If you don’t talk to Congress, the loudest people in the room will always be lobbyists for Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and the National Cable Association—people who will tell them what to do with your technology and your Internet. But let us assure you, if you shout loud enough and long enough into the wind, your voice carries.