Tiffiniy Cheng: Enabling Online Activism

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 1 April 2019

Tiffiniy Cheng is the co-founder of Fight for the Future; a small, agile nonprofit established to keep the Internet open. Its small team uses the Internet to launch and scale political strategies - once the domain of the best lobbyists and presidential campaigns - to win policy change for the public interest. She became a Shuttleworth Fellow in 2016, and we spoke with her recently to reflect on her experience, achievements, and thoughts about the future of the web.

“The Shuttleworth Foundation feels like a lifelong thing. It’s nurturing, helpful and a fantastic vote of confidence that really matters…”

The Fellow: Tiffiniy Cheng & Fight for the Future

Tiffiniy has been involved in online activism since the early 2000s, organising protests, taking on Internet monopolists and positioning herself against everything from the onslaught of overaggressive copyright protection to the creeping, insidious censorship of the open web by corporate power. Unless you believe the erosion of our online freedoms is a good thing, she is definitely on your side.

With years of defending online rights and freedoms behind her, she’s picked up a mass of ideas to pass on to activists of all kinds today as the battle lines are drawn for tomorrow. Viral protests, bill-defeating political strategies, narrative-changing public interest stories - she’s done it all.

“In 2011 we saw a free speech problem develop with the Stop Online Piracy Act,” explains Tiffiniy. “I remember thinking that we stood no chance against this heavily funded bill, but to even try to, we needed mass protests of a size we hadn’t seen, and that’s when we came up with the idea for the SOPA Blackout. It turned out to be the biggest online protest in history and even though we were up against hundreds of millions of dollars and ninety bill co-sponsors, we defeated the bill in one of the biggest about-faces Congress has ever seen, and remembers to this day”.

“From there, we’ve been developing this model of activism to figure out how to make the public concensus bear on the political process more than ever before, use the Internet to scale up and change and move minds, win the debates for honest answers, and get people to band together and fight against the greatest threats to freedom of expression.

“We’re really honing that model to help small groups of people play a fly-in role on important issues,” she continues. “We look at how we can help take the field of people who care and convert all that energy into political moments that can’t be ignored; we try to figure out the math and science and humanities of flipping members of Congress, and how to systematically sustain that kind of focus and inventiveness until we win real policy change.”

Innovation is integral to the group’s tactics. Using a combination of the Internet, the political strategies of, what were once the territory of for profit lobby groups and the very best minds you can find on any given issue, can prove impactful. But creative thinking and openness are the essential weapons in the Fight for the Future armory.

“You can’t inspire millions of people to do something unless you can articulate the real harm or opportunity and have a good idea on how to actually take power and win,” says Tiffiniy. “This is about finding that good idea, creating the right moment, and then sustaining that moment until the dam breaks on political gridlock.

“And while you’re at it, you can start to make these systems we’re in truly open (institutional, political, and social), you are ad hoc setting up self-regulating mechanisms so people are able to participate and get accountability from institutions or powerful actors. In terms of how we build stuff around us, we’re radically open, and I truly believe in having an open, accountable political system.”

Taking the Fight to the Fellowship

Tiffiniy was accepted onto the Shuttleworth Fellowship programme in March 2016. The Foundation had been a participant in several FFTF campaigns before, and we were keen to offer support for such an innovative, creative force taking a stand against what is an often-overlooked human rights issue. This is an ongoing concern tackled on behalf of everyone, yet only a relative few are aware of it; the average person is oblivious to the repercussions of abandoning the open Internet.

When you are up against the deep pockets of lobbyists and the self-interests of billion dollar global companies, you need to mobilise effectively and consistently. You also need resources available so that if an occasional battle is lost, you can dust yourself off and continue to push for wins.

“It was a few years into running Fight for the Future that I applied to the Foundation,” explains Tiffiniy. “It was at a point where I was thinking about what the organisation was doing and was trying to make sure we were working on a long-lasting political contribution to the world.

“We started off with seed funding based on our previous online protest victories in the early 2000s,” she continues. “So we had some support. But at the point I applied to the Foundation, it was unclear what a sustainable roadmap looked like.

“We now think it will be a mix of foundation support, grassroots supporters and major donors, so it has a diverse funding stream. Working this out…that’s one of the things the Fellowship made possible.”

A New Focus

Sustainability issues aside, Tiffiniy’s Fellowship focussed on several key areas: Continue using the internet to close the gap between the public political consensus and policy rulemaking; create a global collective consciousness and cultural shift, activating the public’s power to set a political agenda and change the world around them; and fight policies that set authoritarian abuses of power, especially in the realms of freedom of expression. Net neutrality was the original target, but alongside it another emerging threat attracted the attention of the Fight for the Future collective: the growing mass surveillance apparatus on the Internet.

While those in power push a narrative around the need for detailed, personal and intimate information about citizens as a means to fight terrorism and crime, FFTF believes it’s nothing but a misuse and abuse of data. Privacy and security of our data is a basic human need–we should have control over how we share what we think, talk, or feel on our own time, which is the basis for all social change in the world–yet corporations and governments violate this for manipulation and coercion.

Everyone and everything gets swept up, outside of an existing legal framework; the stuff that if it got out would be cringeworthy or make you lose friends—that stuff you’re working out with friends, colleagues, family, or with yourself. Your entire email inbox can be pulled into a government database and observed without a judge’s say-so. And you could be flagged for an innocent, casual mention of an organisation seen as ‘bothersome’ by the establishment - Greenpeace, for example.

We’re at the point where we put ourselves at risk by merely having discussions with friends, and Tiffiniy and Fight for the Future are at the forefront of those who feel it necessary to push back. But taking on these two challenges simultaneously had an impact.

“I think there was a chance to really get ahead on surveillance issues and push back on this apparatus that grows every day,” says Tiffiniy. “To protect people’s privacy and security, bring home some wins and have some legal underpinning to how we build the machines that use our data.

“We had some victories over the two years, but also some losses. It’s such a labyrinthine issue, so we’d have had to actually allocate more of our resources on this issue to really flex our muscles and achieve what we wanted in that space. But that’s hard because at the same time, net neutrality had come to a head then as well.

“We were never able to expand to set two large, public interest political goals at once, and bring home both at the same time,” she reflects. “I want to be concrete and say: the things we did fight on were the most significant threats that were laid out by the coalition, and we stopped them. But, as of a few years ago, I can only say there were wins on the margins when it comes to surveillance.

“The space itself is not mature enough. There is a lot of growth and accountability to the public interest that has to happen to the entire advocacy world on surveillance. When the Snowden revelations happened, we were still a young field with a focus on just simply understanding the issue. Without more team members, FFTF couldn’t scramble on this one and also protect net neutrality at the same time.”

Moving Forward & Enabling Activism

The maturity of the space is a problem that led Tiffiniy to a new, ambitious idea. Could the core pieces of this model of activism be replicated in different issue areas? And if you could provide the training and tools for the right people with the necessary skills and experience, would it move the dial regarding what can be achieved?

“I think Fight for the Future has become synonymous with this idea of using the Internet to create a political moment, a synecdoche, if you will,” Tiffiniy explains. “Our model of activism and organizing can really drive home an issue, change the narrative, and come up with a game plan to deliver big political goals. And we think almost every issue area is missing this small group of people who understand the Internet and tech and organizing, and are solely tasked with consistently focusing in on scaling opportunities towards a concrete political goal.

“If you had a model for training and give people the basic tools you could get things off the ground. We’ve figured out the training model, but we’re still not finding the quality of people who have the maturity, savviness, and drive to change the world for the better; to marry all the resources out there and create a strategy that can move us closer and closer until a political goal is reached on an issue.

“This opportunity to use the Internet to have an outsized ability to set off political change is new, and few see the opportunity as we do. A lot of people sit in this A-to-B roadmap with a cynical or embedded view that there are limits to what is possible. They accept the dynamics of the status quo and haven’t recalibrated given the onset of the Internet and tech. That is absolutely dangerous for changing how politics gets done, not letting the bad guys take over, and winning political change.

“If you had people who can play an A-Team role on any issue, you can rip off the ceiling in terms of what kinds of political victories can be achieved.

“So we’re making SEAL teams, and we’ve found some people that are really on it, can hit deadlines and create something politically effective but we haven’t found the core of our political engineering team yet–we’ve screened tens of thousands of people, and it’s tough to know when you see one.”

Personal Reflections

Tiffiniy’s two-year Fellowship came to an end in February 2018. After many years of defending the open Internet, she has handed over the day-to-day running of Fight for the Future to the COO and campaign director while remaining as an advisor on its board. She is still active in developing A-Teams, however, and can look back on her work with no small amount of pride.

“I haven’t figured out what’s next for me yet,” says Tiffiniy. “But Fight for the Future has a sustainability path, which is awesome. Not many nonprofits achieve that. It’s in a privileged place and has a future - and the Shuttleworth Foundation helped us get it there.

“I learned a lot from all different kinds of fellows at the Gatherings. We all do very different things, but understanding how something or people work on one issue or in another sector is just more math and humanities to use to understand how to change people’s minds. And, also Astra Taylor and I have very similar worlds, even though our issue area is very different - just having somebody’s mirror or who understands the common grounds but who challenges me is divine.

“All of the ideas that we have come up with around activism or politics are always worth sharing. The next fight can’t copy what you are doing but by learning from the past and adapting you feed the next cycle. I think this type of open sharing is critical to political change. And, we’re always teaching each other how to fight the next battle or us, even.

“It’s hard to really get to know any other foundation, but the Shuttleworth Foundation feels like a lifelong thing. It’s nurturing, open, helpful and a fantastic vote of confidence that plays a huge role in how I’m able to work on changing the world around me.”

Posted in alumni