Tiffiniy Cheng is expanding the internet's transformative potential for good by keeping this vital technology open and accessible. By activating millions of people across the globe and creating a cadre of internet defenders, she is ensuring that bottom-up civic engagement remains relevant in an increasingly online world.
The New Idea
Tiffiniy is pioneering a creative model for harnessing the immense power of the online community to change the political process in the U.S. Centered on building rapid-response campaign technology, Tiffiniy and her colleagues at Fight For the Future are showing how small teams can apply solutions to political gridlock so that the public voice is driving the debate. FTFF’s interventions are funny, provocative, of the moment, bold, and designed to create ‘aha!’ moments capable of igniting massive viral responses many orders of magnitude more effective than the web-enabled political engagement tactics employed till now. By designing and executing back-to-back campaigns that have engaged tens of millions of Americans over the last five years and won victories against all odds, they have proven that regular people can change the balance of power in ways never seen before. According to Ashoka Fellow Nicholas Reville, “it’s a model that works in a digital-native world and there’s nothing else like it, particularly for activating younger people.”
A central theme of Fight for the Future’s work is around protecting their lifeblood: an open, accessible, and private internet. By keeping vital technology open, accessible and private, individuals around the world can take part in true, bottom-up civic engagement. As Tiffiniy puts it, “we are trying to tackle structural, political and economic issues through the fights we take on, but also show the world how to win on these fights and how people can tackle these problems.”
Through these efforts, TIffiniy is empowering the grassroots with ability to easily and efficiently organize their members, through powerful tech-based reform. She and her colleagues have created a new and open playbook and codebase for civic engagement in the 21st century. By blazing a path of easy-to-use, low cost advocacy efforts for individual changemakers and the technology field – from Silicon Valley to non-profits alike – they are already seeing their model and tools being directly applied to other issue areas, like drug policy reform, mass incarceration, or trade justice.
Tiffiniy understands that the root of the problem lies in “concentrations of governmental and corporate power [that] threaten human rights by eliminating citizen participation and silencing dissent.” While their growing influence is greatly troubling, the Internet is a true democracy revitalizer and has made it possible for to rouse millions capable of changing that balance of power.
But the free and open internet is under threat and its potential for good is underutilized. The entertainment industry seeks to maximize copyright laws to stymie freedom of expression; the telecomm industry relies on the near absence of meaningful competition to control online content and its distribution; and governments around the world mine vast amounts of personal data with minimal due process constraints. The consequences of these actions on online privacy and the open internet are not on many people’s radar. Even the technology industry remains mostly silent and inactive. Giving people tools and ideas to act is the best way to defend and expand their powers.
While there are thousands of tech startups and multitudes more in the tech space more broadly, there are only a handful of organizations actively working to ensure that the Internet remains free, open and private. The tools these groups use tend to be complicated, and inflexible; the legal and policy backgrounds of their staff limit their views of what is possible. Even the well-funded lobby firms of the big tech companies are sluggish; during the lead-up to a recent, pivotal vote on Capitol Hill, Tim Wu—the Columbia University law professor who coined the term “net neutrality”—observed that “all of the Silicon Valley lobbyists sat on their hands and thought net neutrality this time around was a lost cause.”
When it comes to individuals, in the traditional political model, much emphasis is put on the “power of your vote.” However, the U.S.–where it is often unclear how to vote, who to vote for, and how much your individual vote matters–ranks 138th out of 168 democracies in voter participation. By addressing just the how, who, or why of voting, the current crop of tech-enabled online actions aren’t having the desired effect either and could be much better served through a cross-disciplined approach that incorporates tech + messaging. Creative, bottom-up model of civic engagement is needed, but what does it look like in the era of the internet?
Fight For the Future is using the internet to save the internet and protect online rights. Under Tiffiniy’s leadership, their campaigns are demystifying complex public policies, tapping creativity, and engaging the internet community to speak out in unprecedented numbers on nuanced, technical, (some might say ungodly boring) but hugely important issues. According to Sascha Meinrath of The X Lab (and an Ashoka Fellow), “they're one of the best at blending much-needed policy intervention with just the right combination of fun and irreverence.”
The team’s first breakout success came in late 2011 and early 2012 in response to the House of Representative’s Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate’s Protect Intellectual Property Act, commonly referred to as SOPA/PIPA. Hollywood studios had invested millions of dollars lobbying for the “anti-piracy” bills that were considered certain to pass. But Tiffiniy was concerned that the proposed penalties for copyright infringement contained measures that could cause great harm to online freedom of speech, websites, and internet communities. When she and the brand-new FFTF team saw that the bills were moving forward, it occurred to them that since the internet is so large, it had to be alerted. So they built a tool that any site could use in protest: a day-long blacked-out frontpage to show visitors the real-world implications of the passage of SOPA/PIPA and a widget that allowed you to directly contact elected officials. The tool itself took the protest of SOPA/PIPA from typical blog-based-debate to much larger mass action. In fact, the 24 million people who emailed or called their elected officials and over 100,000 websites that participated in the internet blackout represented the largest single civic action in history. As reported in the Boston Globe, the then four-month-old Fight for the Future, with a staff of five, “helped orchestrate the national blackout of 115,000 websites to protest two congressional bills giving the government new powers to regulate the internet... The blackout attracted worldwide attention and had an immediate impact: The antipiracy legislation was promptly shelved.”
Securing this “unwinnable” victory helped Tiffiniy signal that a new political process was emerging, made possible by a free, open, and participatory internet. A de-centralized network had proven to be more powerful than industry and government. And, in this experience, Tiffiniy and her colleagues at FFTF also realized that the definitions and norms surrounding issues like free speech, privacy, power, and surveillance were getting defined in these interactions, and that the more they could drive the conversation, the more they could shape the internet—and all the community, creativity, and collective action it enables—into a new political process.
Having just convinced website giants like Wikipedia, Amazon, tumblr, Google, reddit, and craigslist to blackout their logos and put FFTF action widgets on their homepages, FFTF created the Internet Defense League (IDL) “to turn that network into a permanent force of individuals, groups, and businesses that stands on the ready to respond to all threats to online rights and freedoms when they arise.” The IDL now includes more than 1 million individuals and over 30,000 websites committed to defending the internet and freedom of expression. When needed, it can act as an emergency broadcast network to highlight issues in need of people power. Riffing off Batman’s bat-light-over-Gotham-City-signal, websites that opt in can automatically splash a cat-light with links to action-widgets, while individual social media users can channel action alerts directly to their feeds.
Working with the IDL, partners, and individuals around the world, the FFTF team has launched dozens of new campaigns over the last 5 years, all with the dual purpose of protecting the open internet and rewriting the civic engagement playbook. Their connection to issues on the ground, their lean and distributed core team, and their team’s fresh and youthful, irreverent approach has helped them build a long list of civic engagements and customized tools, all the while growing their network and helping reframe civic engagement itself. Samples of their creative approach include:
• Vote with Friends, a social media tool that helped voters aggregate their friends and go to the polls together, based on an observation that when voting became a social event for young people, turnout dramatically increased.
• SaveBieber.org, a 2013 project that used this satirical site to take aim at Senate legislation that would have made performing copyrighted material in online videos a felony (with a nod to the fact that Justin Bieber rose to fame by covering Chris Brown songs on YouTube)
• A tool that sends constituent feedback to members of congress in the form of faxes that also slyly draws attention to the fact that the only sector that still uses fax machines is government. Why? Because they don’t leave a digital trail.
• And of course, FFTF’s recent BattlefortheNet campaign, through which more than 100,000 websites participated in FFTF’s Internet Slowdown Day, including Netflix, Etsy, Kickstarter and other major sites. Using the dreaded spinning icon of a stalled internet connection, FFTF provided a clear visual depiction of what the cable companies wanted: a world without net neutrality. The one-day campaign drove a record 800,000 comments to the FCC, which ultimately was hammered with a total of four million calls in support of net neutrality. The massive public outcry shut down the agency’s servers more than once and demonstrated the combined power of smart technology and smart messaging. When, shortly after, President Obama issued his videotaped endorsement for the campaign, the FCC followed in lockstep. As reported in the Boston Globe, “the coalition insisted that true net neutrality would require the Internet be regulated as a public utility, a position FCC chairman Tom Wheeler officially embraced [in February 2015] after President Obama sided with supporters like Cheng.”
In addition to winning good policy -- the first major affirmative win for the movement -- the Battle for the Net also produced a set of tools that have already been used in other campaigns. These tools have added efficiencies to every aspect of organizing, from distributing local rally logistics to device-based poster signs and even a switchboard-evading tool which sent calls to FCC personnel throughout the office. As FFTF’s Campaign Director Evan Greer puts it, “we are storytellers [rather than activists]. We need to help people get the story that they are in, and understand their part in it. Instead of stringing people along with false promises of “we will win!” we let everyone in on our strategy. Looking back, this is what matters most. This is our strategy.”
And it appears this strategy is working. According to Seth Flaxman, Ashoka Fellow and founder of Democracy Now and TurboVote, “Tiffiniy has led some of the only issue education campaigns of the last few years that actually influenced lawmakers in Congress.” And because the goal is helping people build their civic engagement muscles, even if they do lose in Congress from time to time, they can still hope to win the overall narrative.
In the past, civic tech tools were built to open up the political process – voting, signing petitions, sending letters to you representatives. But Tiffiniy and her team insist that collectively developing creative, flexible, customized, and tailor-made tools for particular campaign IS the new political process. The tools they create are dynamic, fun, and social. They alert people to immediate threats and connect directly to targets’ inboxes or phones. The Fight for the Future tools and techniques have been consistently adopted by groups like Mozilla, Google, Tumblr, Netflix as well as MoveOn, PCCC, Demand Progress, and CREDO.
Tiffiniy and the FFTF team are now focused on strategies that help cluster their 1.4 million members into microteams around the world. Through action alerts and the Internet Defense League they are already “laying sparks in likely tinder” by connecting on-the-ground efforts or initiating increasingly local actions. FFTF can then link local participants to each other and, in this way, have already supported the launch of local chapters in the US, Canada, Singapore, Turkey, and the Ukraine. Large institutions and individuals alike recognize them as the ‘go to’ group to provide the tech and communications infrastructure for winning campaigns.
As Sascha Meinrath has put it, “ [FFTF is] changing how advocacy works in the 21st Century, crafting new tactics and intervention strategies to push the envelope on progressive reform.” Groups tackling issues well beyond the scope of the open internet are already borrowing directly from the FFTF playbook as they refine their strategies in reversing mass incarceration, reducing gun violence, or revitalizing trade unions. Congress has already become more open to listening to the public before deciding on an issue, using social media to communicate, inviting input or ideas directly from the public, and generally embracing a more responsive communication style. By updating the changemaker’s 21st century toolkit, FFTF is helping groups that depend on robust civic engagement transition to and remain relevant in an increasingly online world.
Tiffiniy was born in a Macau refugee camp when her parents were fleeing the Vietnam War. She moved to Worcester, Massachusetts as a toddler and grew up in a non-English speaking home. Tiffiniy long observed how “immigrants were often shut out of the system and what it meant not to have a voice.” Home life was difficult, but English teachers that celebrated the power of her unique insights and contributions and the PBS mini-series Eyes on the Prize documenting the Civil Rights Movement in the United States gave young Tiffiniy a glimpse of some ways of changing the world. The intuition, basic bravery, and intelligence of the individuals working together to make change stuck with her, and her north star ever since has been “to choose the stuff that if I don’t do, no one else will.”
In 11th grade, Tiffiniy transferred to a state-sponsored public school for high-achieving students in math and science. At this school, math was about solving problems of the world, and she was taught to not be limited by any one idea or approach to solving a particular challenge, but to tap into the creativity of others to generate novel approaches and new insights. In the friendships she forged there, Tiffiniy “experienced the magic of collaborating with other creative, tech activists.” Tiffiniy pinpoints these formative years as the true founding of Fight For The Future.
In reflecting on her group of high school friends, Tiffiniy observes that “each one of us has become a social entrepreneur in some fashion and we have remained connected for nearly 20 years. In various configurations, together we have built software applications, campaigns, and organizations for social change.” Tiffiniy and her classmates have launched Miro, an open source video player; OpenCongress, the most popular government transparency website in the U.S.; and Amara, the premier tool for crowdsourced video subtitling. The friends’ mobile game Let it Rain has been featured in the New York Times and ranked as the #1 Top iTunes app for weeks. In 2003, when Tiffiniy learned that rebroadcasts and video sales of the PBS series that had had such an impact on her as a young person were being halted because of higher rates imposed by the copyright holders of some of the video’s archival footage, she sprang into action. The website and online call-to-action she created went viral and is considered one of the first successful “online protests.” Copyright holders negotiated lower rates, the series was back on the air, and Tiffiniy had built out another piece of the FFTF puzzle.
Tiffiniy’s work through Miro, OpenCongress, Amara, and, now, Fight For The Future demonstrates that “if you create an open system where people can contribute and see each other’s contributions, you can spark great, open, and participatory efforts that will actually have an impact.”