An outside-the-Beltway strategy

Northampton-based Free Press has become a force in Washington by stoking public uprisings and refusing to compromise

most washington advocacy groups are based in Washington on the theory that it’s easier to influ­ence the federal government from the capital itself. But Free Press, an up-and-coming advocacy group that is an antagonist of media and Internet companies and thorn in the side of the Federal Communications Commission, is headquartered 400 miles away in the Pioneer Valley.

Free Press, based in tiny Florence, a village of Northampton, makes it clear that its outside-the-Beltway strategy is all about avoiding Washing­ton’s culture of back-scratching. Instead, the group tries to convince politicians to do what it wants by siccing an angry public on them. In other words, compromise is not an option.

In its effort to change policy by stoking a public uprising, Free Press has an unlikely range of interests. It wants to regulate the Internet to ensure that Internet service providers don’t decide to start favoring certain content over other. It’s also against consolidation of media companies and wants to force those companies to pay for expanded broadband Internet access.

Just nine years after it was founded by campaign finance activist Josh Silver and University of Illinois professor Robert W. McChesney, even Free Press’s critics say it has become the dominant consumer group in the area of media reform. It almost single-handedly made net neutrality—the idea that Internet providers should not discriminate against any content—a rallying cry in Wash­ington and played a big role in convincing the FCC to move ahead with regulations. In so doing, it became a feared opponent of big Internet service providers, such as Verizon, which strongly oppose the new rules. Free Press added to its reputation as a force to be reckoned with by fighting against the mergers of NBC and Comcast and, more recently, AT&T and T-Mobile.

Still, it’s nearly as easy to argue that Free Press has experienced more disappointments in Wash­ington than successes. Last fall, the group sued the FCC to protest the net neutrality rules it worked so hard to promote, arguing that they are too weak because they don’t cover wireless devices. More recently, Free Press took the lead in criticizing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s plan to revamp how the government funds the deployment of Internet service to rural areas, putting the group at odds with a powerful home state senator, John Kerry, who’s endorsed the FCC’s plan.

To some, Free Press’s principled stands have made leaders of the group heroes. Sasha Costanza-Chock, a professor of civic media at the Massa­chusetts Institute of Technology, says the group is nothing less than “the best respected and most visible political advocacy organization representing the public interest in media policy.”

US Rep. Ed Markey, the Malden Democrat who is Congress’s leading proponent of net neutrality, calls the group “a phenomenal force for building the movement for better media.”

To others, though, Free Press has become a prime example of how groups not well versed in the ways of Washington can eventually cut themselves out of the debate. “I don’t think they realize that sometimes the best way to get things done is to work out deals, and that’s just not their M.O.,” says Paul Gallant, a former aide to ex-FCC chairman Michael Powell, a George W. Bush appointee.

When Free Press sued the FCC in September, for example, allies who’d helped the group pursue the net neutrality rules refused to join them. “They’ve chosen to litigate it. We’re not going to,” says David Sohn, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “We see the rules as a good start, and we want to try to see those get established.”

Free Press was unmoved. Craig Aaron, Free Press’s executive director, says the group believes a confrontational approach works better than compromise. “Some groups are willing to accept this or that, or believe this is the best they can get. We’re going to continue to fight,” he says.

Aaron says the fact that the group is based outside of Washington is crucial to its no-compromise mantra. “We’ve always believed in an outside-inside strategy,” he says. “Having a lot of staff outside of DC allows us not to get too sucked into the minutia of Washington.” (Free Press maintains a satellite office in Washington, with about a third of its 40-person staff—lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations staffers mainly—in the capital. Its fundraising and administrative teams remain in Florence.)

Setting up shop in the liberal western Massachusetts college town was Josh Silver’s idea. A campaign finance activist motivated by the belief that corporate lobbyists have too much power in Washington, Silver wanted to stay as far away from the capital as he could. He grew up in Shelburne, a half-hour drive north, and saw the Northampton area as relatively inexpensive and full of talent from the many colleges in the area.

At first, his primary goal was to fight efforts by big media companies—the owners of television and radio stations and newspapers—to consolidate. But it quickly became apparent that the Internet was changing the media landscape. New and diverse voices were gaining readers online, but there were no rules ensuring that Internet service providers had to transmit their content. Soon, the group shifted gears to ensuring that net neutrality would be the law of the land.

“The goal was to give the American people a seat at the table in the key media and technology debates. In order to do that, it’s clear we needed to be outside of the Belt­way,” says Silver, who left Free Press last year to start a new group focusing on opposing corporate influence in campaign politics.

During its early years, Free Press was known for attacking the Bush administration. It generated a massive email campaign and rallied activists at FCC meetings in opposition to the commission’s decision to ease its rules barring newspaper firms from buying television broadcasters in the same markets, and vice versa. The courts ultimately threw out the rules, handing Free Press a big victory. The group pulled no punches. Silver said the commission was “dominated by industry pawns” and cheered when Bush’s first FCC chairman, Michael Powell—who’d proposed easing the rules limiting media mergers—resigned.

Free Press expected its net neutrality campaign to gain traction when President Obama was elected. Liberal donors like George Soros’s Open Society Institute, Bill Moyers’s Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, and the Ford Foundation helped grow Free Press’s budget to $5 million.

Conservatives and business lobbyists have targeted Free Press as the puppet master dictating technology policy in the Obama administration. Jim Lakely, co-director of the Center on Digital Economy at the Heartland Institute, a business-backed group, says Free Press has been “very influential” in large part because “they’ve had the ear of Obama and Genachowski.”

But Silver says it would be more appropriate to cast Free Press with so many other groups on the left that have been disappointed with Obama. “This is a similar story across issues,” he says. “The Obama administration made many promises that they didn’t end up keeping. Because of our outside-the-Beltway culture, we were able to pivot and apply political pressure when we needed to.”

It remains to be seen, though, whether Free Press’s decision to protest, rather than compromise, will succeed. The group is still awaiting a decision on its lawsuit against the FCC’s net neutrality rules from the federal district court in Boston. A win would provide some vindication, but officials at the Center for Democracy and Technology are concerned that the ruling could go in the opposite direction, in favor of Verizon.

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On the extension of broadband service to rural areas, Free Press looked like it might find an ally in Kerry. Both are critical of the existing taxes on phone plans that are used to pay for service to rural areas. Kerry says the system shortchanges Massachusetts residents, who pay a lot but receive little government aid in return. Free Press say profitable phone companies should chip in more of their own money to expand service.

But when the FCC released its plan in late October, Kerry endorsed the overhaul as “fiscally responsible and fair” while Free Press blasted it as a “missed opportunity.” From the perspective of Washington insiders like Gallant, it looked like another opportunity missed for Free Press to cut a deal to its liking. But Aaron says Free Press saw no room for compromise: “The FCC can close the digital divide only by recognizing that these vastly profitable companies don’t need to be subsidized,” he says.