Why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge could save net neutrality

To describe the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to you might as well be describing the sky, The fundraising campaign—which has netted $100 million in donations–is the most successful use of social media for a cause in recent memory, crafting an ubiquity formerly only met by fly-by-night fads like planking and “Gangnam Style.”

Encouraging individual causes to “go viral” (I hate that term, too) is a tricky business, full of more failuressome catastrophic—than successes. But the issue of net neutrality, currently the denizens of Redditors and policy obsessives, could learn from the Ice Bucket Challenge. Such a wonky issue is nevertheless drastically important for the future of the Internet but, despite several rebranding efforts, is far afield of most Americans’ mind.

By emulating not necessarily the techniques of the ALSA’s runaway success but it’s values, net neutrality could rise to the forefront of public debate. Writing for Forbes, Rick Smith narrows down the causes of the Challenge’s success to three principles: The size of the campaign,  the selflessness of participation, and simplicity of the cause it supported. Using this basic triangle of popularity, the ALS campaign demanded attention.

“In concert,” Smith writes, “big, selfless, and simple ideas attract, inspire, and involve others, and create a multiplier effect that can result in broad achievement beyond what any person could hope to accomplish alone.”

The last two of those ideals has been the limp in net neutrality’s stride as a social movement. While the issue has certainly attracted large numbers—garnering a record 1.1 million public comments on the FCC’s page for that agency’s disastrous proposals—it falters in appearing like a charity (because it is not) and being easily digestible (which it also is not).

Net neutrality never appears selfless simply because its strongest defenders have self-interests at heart. While advocates like myself might be heartened by big companies like Google and Netflix standing up for what we believe to be our right to an open Internet, they and other corporations are doing so for the bottom-line. Netflix has as much a selfish interest in seeing net neutrality survive as Comcast and Verizon do in seeing it die.

Of course, policy issues—as opposed to charitable efforts—are always going to be at least a bit selfish. So how can advocates make clear that net neutrality is more than a mere personal fight for geeks and corporate giants?

This week, Reddit, Etsy, Foursquare, and others announced they will use September 10 as a “day of action.” Attempting to simulate how the “fast-lane” mentality of the FCC and ISPs will affect websites that cannot pony-up the latter’s proposed fees, these sites will increase the loading and wait times for their services. Similar to the popular SOPA protests from 2012—in which popular sites like Wikipedia and Facebook either completely shut down or limited their services to simulate what that proposed law would wrought—this action stands to attract mainstream attention by making the issue personal to every user.

Where Rick Smith is wrong is that the ALS campaign was not selfless—it merely appeared selfless. One of the frequent criticisms of the Ice Bucket Challenge is how few of the videos made by ordinary people actually provided information on how to donate for the cause they supposedly care so much about. Participators gained effective “cool points” simply for appearing to give a hoot.

This proposed day of action could inspire enough ire and fear amongst the mainstream populace to recalculate how “cool” talking about net neutrality actually is. When the services we’ve allowed to dominate our social lives and media habits begin to suffer for an issue—even if in a temporary and symbolic gesture—net neutrality could suddenly “appear” as important as it really is to people who might not care otherwise. The Ice Bucket Challenge was far cooler for most people than it was selfless; net neutrality could accomplish the same with more concerted efforts to show the reality’s of the FCC’s designs on the Internet’s future.

The last pillar of success, according to Smith, is presenting a simple idea. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge never really needed to explain its message. It doesn’t take much foresight to know supporting the fight of a debilitating illness is good. Net neutrality, on the other hand, is about as complex as the ALS campaign is simple.

As much as the ALS campaign presented two clear positions—either you dump water on your head or you’re a clueless has-been who hates Lou Gehrig—net neutrality can likewise present such a binary, easy-to-make choice by simplifying the debate surrounding it.

Net neutrality as an issue really isn’t all that narratively complex: The big, bad cable companies want to make your Internet even slower. All those cool companies that make your apps and phones? They want to leave the Internet how it is. By simply arguing for the status quo, you’ve made what is a rather gratuitous debate about corporate property rights and utility classifications so simple it almost sounds cliche: Leave things the way they are.

But as much as simplifying the principles of a movement is important, so is simplifying how people can help. The Ice Bucket Challenge is very simple: Dump ice on your head, donate, challenge your friends to do likewise. Sadly, net neutrality’s options for participation aren’t very easy. Posting comments and signing online petitions are typically useless; they provide us with a larger sense of control over the issue but, in actuality, do very little.

Luckily, unlike a disease, government is prone to follow widespread public opinion. After the aforementioned SOPA protests, House and Senate members couldn’t wait to abandon their support for the bill. In the case of net neutrality, simplifying the idea—combined with making it clear how it affects everyone—is simplifying the action.

Starting a massive conversation about net neutrality could force the hands of politicians to care about this relatively niche issue (that’s if lobbying dollars from Google don’t first). And as much as the Ice Bucket Challenge enforced a social need for others to participate via encouraging you to “challenge” your friends, making the conversation a social necessity could push net neutrality above its relatively neglected state as an issue.

Not one of these tactics will work alone. Getting stratospheric numbers of comments into the FCC can’t work without a concerted PR campaign to make people care about the issue, and neither can work if the realities of a world without net neutrality aren’t made clear and simple to the general public. Net neutrality is a winning issue and its one most people likely agree with even if they don’t know it. As is typical of every issue online—be it fighting a disease or selling your startup—the hardest battle is getting the attention you deserve.

Photo via AFGE/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.