To the victors go the spoils. That seems to be the mantra of some advocacy groups that helped helped organize the mass online protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).
Three groups in particular — Demand Progress, Don’t Censor the Net and Fight For The Future — are now seeking to turn the sudden political engagement by millions of Web users against the bills into cold card cash, i.e. donations for the groups themselves and the legislators they support.
On January 20, just hours after Congressional leaders in the Senate and House indefinitely postponed further action on SOPA and PIPA, Tiffiniy Cheng, a co-founder of the Web freedom advocacy group Fight For the Future, sent out an email to all those who had signed up on the group’s webpage. The subject line was: “Woohoo!”
“A big hurrah to you!!!!! We’ve won for now — SOPA and PIPA were dropped by Congress today — the votes we’ve been scrambling to mobilize against have been cancelled,” Cheng’s email began.
But the celebratory email concluded with a warning that SOPA and PIPA would likely be revived down the road — and a plea for donations to Fight For the Future to help the small group (Fight For the Future’s board contains only four permanent members) continue their work.
“#SOPA and #PIPA will likely return in some form. But when they do, we’ll be ready. Can you make a donation to Fight for the Future, to help us keep this fire going?” Cheng wrote, “We changed the game this fall, and we’re not gonna stop. $8, $20, every little bit helps.”
Days later, on January 25, Donny Shaw, a Fight for the Future organizer and a blogger at Open Congress, sent out another email to Fight For the Future’s email list under the subject line “SOPA has become toxic.”
Shaw’s email concluded with another plea for donations — this time to those Senators who had come out against the bills before the protests and long before rest of their colleagues.
“We need to make sure we support and vote for leaders like them who are willing to going to go out on a limb and oppose SOPA before it was popular to do so,” Shaw wrote, “It’s great that we pressured all those other shlubs into opposing web censorship, but these guys deserve the real cred and our support: Click here to donate (scroll down).”
The “click here” link goes to a separate website called “Vote For the Net,” which contains a pledge that users can virtually “sign”: “In 2012, I will only support candidates who stand for Internet freedom and who oppose the PROTECT IP Act and SOPA. I will work against any candidate, of any party, who votes to censor and stifle the Internet.”
At the bottom of the page is another section: “Donate to Save the Net,” which extols four senators — Sens. Jerry Moran (R-KS), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) for leading “the fight against the Internet Blacklist.”
“Regardless of party, we need to show legislators who take on the courageous fight for Internet freedom that we have their back,” the website reads. “Please donate whatever you can, even just $1, to show your support.”
“We can’t coordinate with these politicians directly on donations,” said Holmes Wilson, another co-founder of Fight For the Future, in a phone interview with TPM. “But we can tell people to donate to politicians doing the right thing.”
That’s because Fight For the Future is a 501(c)(4) organization, according to Wilson.
That’s IRS-speak for a tax-exempt nonprofit “service” organization that can raise donations and lobby for specific legislation and engage in many other political activities as long as “supporting or opposing candidates is not their primary activity,” as the nonprofit advocacy legal group Alliance For Justice puts it.
Fight For the Future, which was founded by former Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science classmates Wilson and Cheng in the Fall of 2011, according to the Boston Globe, began with a $300,000 grant from the Media Democracy Fund, itself a philanthropic grant-making organization founded in 2006 with seed money from the Albert A. List Foundation and $1.2 million in donations from other large philanthropic organizations including the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
It was founded “on the belief that freedom of expression and access to information are basic human rights.” The Media Democracy Fund is finalizing another $759,000 grant for Fight For the Future, according to the Boston Globe.
However, as Wilson pointed out to TPM, the “Donate to Save The Net,” website isn’t even an official Fight For the Future project, although the group emphatically supports it.
Donate To Save the Net is actually actually collaborative project set-up by Demand Progress and Don’t Censor the Net, Left and Right-wing advocacy groups respectively that banded together early in the fight against SOPA and PIPA. Demand Progress is itself a PAC founded by programmer Aaron Swartz in 2010, now led by executive director David Segal, a former Rhode Island state representative.
“We launched the [Vote For the Net] website just over a week ago, concurrent with the blackout” Segal told TPM in a telephone interview. “We’ve actually had 100,000 people sign the pledge…Our goal is to make it clear to elected officials that people are willing to vote and donate based on these issues.”
The “Vote For the Net” donations drive follows a tradition dating back to the 1960s of advocacy groups from various industries becoming more formalized over time, and more focused on raising political moneys.
But it is of special remark in the case of these particular groups — Demand Progress, Don’t Censor the Net and Fight For the Future — because of their insistence that they aren’t playing by the old rules of Washington and industry, and because of their repeated criticism of the the actions of Hollywood’s lobbying organization — the Motion Picture Association of America — during the SOPA and PIPA fight.
The current CEO of the MPAA, former Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) stoked outrage when he candidly said in an interview with Fox News that Hollywood would consider cutting off donations to those politicians who had come out against the bills.
There is no evidence that Dodd was doing anything untoward or illegal, and the MPAA put out a statement saying that Dodd “was merely making the obvious point that people support politicians whose views coincide with their own.”
But Demand Progress and Fight For the Future interpreted those comments differently.
“Dodd was essentially saying ‘our industry failed to get this in return for our members’ contributions,’” Wilson explained to TPM. “That’s a clear-cut case of corporate money in politics. We’re trying to counter-act the influence of corporate money in politics. That’s why we’re organizing a large number of contributors. One of the most effective antidotes to undue corporate influence in politics is a large number of small, individual donors.”
“These are thousands and thousands of people making individual decisions to support or not support candidates based on their positions in this fight,” agreed Demand Progress’s Segal, “This is not corporate money, it’s not PAC money. This is rank and file internet users deciding on their own to donate or not donate.”
Photo from Dmitry Rukhlenko / Shutterstock.
Correction: This article originally stated that Aaron Swartz was a co-founder of Reddit, then was corrected to state he was not, when in fact, in 2006, when Reddit was acquired by Condé Nast, Swartz was named as a co-founder of the website. We have since corrected the error and regret it.