Where Do Funders Stand as the Fight to "Save the Internet" Heats Up Again?

Net neutrality is one of those issues that conjures strong opinions or blank stares, depending on who you talk to. For its champions, it guarantees a free Internet where service providers can't buy and sell ease-of-access. For net neutrality’s detractors, it’s a “solution in search of a problem” smacking of governmental overreach. 

Donald Trump sides with the second camp, and his election threatens to undo hard-won gains when it comes to net neutrality. His choice as FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, is in the middle of a sweeping push to deregulate Internet service providers, to the dismay of neutrality advocates. The plan is to dismantle a series of 2015 rules from the Obama administration that favored net neutrality.

A number of funders played a role in helping advance and win those rule changes, as we reported at the time. Leaders have been such major foundations as Ford, Knight, MacArthur, and Open Society. According to a 2015 piece from the leaders of the Ford, Knight, and Mozilla foundations, “The question breaks down simply: Do we have a digital public square that is accessible and open to all or one where citizens are able to participate depending on their wealth?”

Framing the issue that way, liberal funders support groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology, Fight for the Future, Public Knowledge, and the New America Foundation. The ACLU has also pushed on net neutrality with backing from some of the same foundations. For funders like Knight, this supplements a stepped up push to back a free press and independent journalism in the age of Trump

Tech funders are also in the picture. In 2014, when Congress proposed a set of rule changes favoring ISPs, we discussed how tech philanthropists like Evan Williams, Mark Cuban, and Craig Newmark have long supported the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a leading advocacy organization for digital rights, open source, and the notion of a free internet.

Led by technologists like philanthropist Brewster Kahle, the San Francisco-based EFF gets a great deal of funding from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, as well as the personal foundations of tech royalty like the Brin Wojcicki Foundation. Other tech philanthropists who support net neutrality include Fred Wilson and Alexis Ohanian. Pierre Omidyar has also shown signs of interest, especially as he actively opposes the Trump administration on civil liberties. 

Google is also an important funder in this mix. It's donated substantial sums to places like the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and the New America Foundation, where the company’s CEO Eric Schmidt served as board chair until very recently. Schmidt himself, with a net worth of over $11 billion, has been a major contributor to the think tank. 

To be clear, not all of these advocacy organizations frame net neutrality as a fight to “save the Internet.” While language about free expression and open access unites them to some degree, they (and their funders) express a range of interests, including some very corporate-friendly ones. 

There isn't much philanthropy opposing net neutrality, that being the domain of telecommunications industry groups. Advocacy groups on this side, like the Free State Foundation, tend to approach the issue from a libertarian angle, citing concerns about overregulation. Others on the right worry about Silicon Valley’s liberal bent.

Related: Who Will Step Up & Save the Internet This Time?