WORCESTER – From a stuffy attic in this former industrial city, Tiffiniy Cheng and her friends hatched plans to save the Internet.
Fight for the Future, the name they later bestowed on their group of 30-something idealists, stirred an online advocacy movement that swayed President Obama, influenced the Federal Communications Commission, and helped defeat the telecommunications industry, one of the mightiest lobbying powers in Washington.
They did so in concert with grassroots organizations, tech startups, and a few deep-pocketed companies such as Netflix to promote net neutrality, the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally — with no special treatment for monied interests.
“We tapped into people’s basic moral ideas,’’ said Cheng, who was born in a Macau refugee camp to parents who fled the Vietnam War. She arrived in Worcester as a toddler.
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 this month after President Obama sided with supporters like Cheng. The agency will hold a final vote next week.
Hunched over laptops at home and at friends’ apartments, Fight for the Future activists harnessed the Internet to transform a wonky issue into a potent rallying cry. The group spread a carefully honed political message that generated intense grass-roots pressure from around the country — all aimed at Congress, the White House and the FCC.
Some of their work was plain old political organizing, but other aspects were more unorthodox. They figured out a way to circumvent the FCC’s switchboard, for example, and send tens of thousands of calls directly to individual office desks.
The battle evolved into a confrontation between millions of Davids and a few Goliaths in the cable and wireless industries.
Those in the industry see the activists’ campaign as reckless and factually flawed.
“They have turned what should be a technical policy discussion into a heated political demagoguery,” said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. “They unleashed these kinds of misguided attacks that have whipped up a bunch of people to say things that just aren’t true.”
Cheng met Fight for the Future cofounder Holmes Wilson in the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science at a program that Wilson said was for “kids that are smart and weird.”
The pair began their online activism work in 2003 by denouncing restrictions on the flow of information online. After Cheng finished college at Cooper Union in New York City, she joined Wilson on Downhill Battle, a nonprofit that scorned major record labels and promoted the sharing of art and music. The topic proved controversial; the freedoms they espoused some viewed as stealing.
Fight for the Future took shape in 2011 with the broad premise that grass-roots campaigns could better tap into the unlimited opportunity that existed online.
The group’s campaign director is a “riot folk” musician who works out of a shared office space with antique phone booths in Boston’s South End. A technologist lives in Minnesota. Their graphic designer works from Albania. Wilson has moved to Brazil.
They correspond through chat rooms and rarely meet in person. Much of their $700,000 budget comes from digital rights promoters such as the Media Democracy Fund and a recent grant from the Ford Foundation.
Their first major effort targeted antipiracy legislation in Congress. Backers of the bills said stronger laws would stop illegal downloading of content, but the group argued such proposals threatened free speech. Members helped orchestrate a day-long blackout protest with more than 100,000 websites, a move that led to the legislation’s demise.
The net neutrality debate appeared even more enticing.
Cheng and her allies in the worlds of startups and Internet activism wanted to ensure broadband providers could not charge businesses for faster service. These groups believed the practice would create a system of haves and have-nots on the information superhighway.
“The Internet has a transformative power to make the world a better place, and we’re fighting to protect that,” Wilson, 35, said from a shared office in Rio de Janeiro.
But companies such as Comcast and Verizon opposed utility-style regulation, which they warned would create heavy-handed rules, slower Internet speeds, and higher prices for consumers.
Fight for the Future recognized the battle could be won or lost on the field of public opinion. It developed BattleFor-TheNet.com, a website that broke the complex issue down to a fight between two sides: cable companies and everyone else. They seized on the image of slow lanes for companies that couldn’t pay for better service and used the language in e-mails to their 1.4 million subscribers.
Campaign director Evan Greer, 29, came up with the idea to camp outside the FCC’s Washington headquarters. Wheeler, the FCC chairman, stopped by and posed for a picture with an orange sign that read, “Honk for the Open Internet.”
He appeared to soften his stance over the next few months.
Members built a website for each member of Congress to show where they stood on the issue. They joined with 40,000 websites to launch an Internet Slowdown day meant to demonstrate what would happen without stronger rules.
About a quarter of the almost 4 million comments the FCC received by September went through BattleFor-TheNet.com.
Then one of the coalition’s members asked Cheng to join a select team at the White House. She sat calmly between lawyers and administration officials, one of five in an hourlong meeting who spoke up in favor of preserving the Internet’s egalitarian spirit.
The October meeting — made up of 20 startups, interest groups, and other reclassification advocates — was a sign something had shifted.
“We knew what we had done was big,” Cheng said. “In a lot of ways it finally felt like the White House was listening.”
Victory came weeks later in a surprise phone call from a White House official, who rang Cheng to applaud the group’s efforts. Obama had released a video endorsing the group’s approach and using some of their language.
The FCC’s Wheeler announced his decision to adopt utility-style regulations in a Wired op-ed this month, citing a “record-setting proceeding that attracted nearly 4 million comments.” He declined an interview.
Fight for the Future and related groups “were the game,” said Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor who coined the term “net neutrality.’’ “All of the Silicon Valley lobbyists sat on their hands and thought net neutrality this time around was a lost cause.”
A report released last week by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society concluded the “networked public space played a central, arguably decisive, role in turning around the Federal Communications Commission policy on net neutrality.”
It cited BattleForTheNet.com as one of the most influential forces.
“Their steady drumbeat helped the rest of us who have to be a little more diplomatic,” said Liba Rubenstein, director of strategy and outreach for Tumblr, a microblogging website owned by Yahoo, that campaigned for the reclassification.
Cheng now works from another attic in Worcester, a few streets from where she first discussed the power of the Internet. She has turned a bookshelf into a stand-up desk, where she and her colleagues plot how to defend their victory from lawsuits or last-minute efforts to derail the vote.
“We’re working on the frontlines of defending freedom of expression in the digital age,” she said.
Jessica Meyers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.