Will Three Million Comments in Favor of Net Neutrality Sway the FCC – and Should They?

Over the past few months, the FCC has seen a level of public participation unprecedented in the agency’s history. Largely spurred on by John Oliver (not to give short shrift to numerous consumer groups mobilizing the masses), over three million comments were filed in the FCC’s net neutrality proceeding, many by people who couldn’t name more than one or two commissioners and who only knew the name of chairman Tom Wheeler because Oliver told them. The overwhelming majority of those three million comments begged the FCC to preserve net neutrality and an open Internet and not to adopt “paid prioritization” rules that would undermine the concept of net neutrality, with the only comments in favor of paid prioritization being cable companies and people paid off by cable companies.

With so many people weighing in on the issue, surely the FCC will bow to the will of the people and pass real net neutrality, right? According to Seeta Peña Gangadharan writing in Slate, and drawing on his experiences with the 2002 and 2006 ownership reviews when the FCC ignored the input of hundreds of thousands of comments from ordinary Americans, the answer is a resounding no. Depending on how cynical you are, that may not be surprising; what may surprise you is what Gangadharan says are the reasons why, something that he says “points to a much larger tension between federal agencies and the public—and one that we must address if we want our agencies to help restore trust in government and strengthen their civic purpose.”

According to the FCC commissioners and staffers Gangadharan spoke to, the public has a misconception that the comment process is like a vote, when it’s actually “more like a court proceeding” where “systematic, reliable evidence, not emotional expressions” win the day. They considered the many comments filed in the ownership proceeding by people who probably never filed comments to the FCC any other time as “emotional and superficial content”, “prone to error” and “lack[ing] truthfulness”. As one staffer put it, not “usually very deep or analytical or, you know, substantiated by evidence, documentary or otherwise. They’re usually expressions of opinion.” Another went so far as to say some of the comments they received were downright “hilarious” because “you know you’re reading something, and you know it’s not true. And you’re guessing, you know, the person is hallucinating.” As a result, many comments don’t even make it very far in the commission’s bureaucracy, because in the eyes of staffers, “they [don’t] need to”. As Gangadharan puts it, to sway the commission you need to “become a lawyer, economist, or researcher and meet the commission’s expectations for what reasoned input really means.”

If the majority of comments from ordinary citizens to the FCC fail to “meet the commission’s expectations for what reasoned input really means”, perhaps that’s because they aren’t “reasoned input” by anyone’s expectations, and if they consider those comments “emotional and superficial content”, perhaps that’s because they are. By and large, when “ordinary citizens” file comments to the FCC they not only tend not to be all that well-argued, resorting to “emotional and superficial” appeals, they often are riddled with spelling, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation errors. The Sunlight Foundation characterized “at least” 60% of the 800,000 net neutrality comments the FCC had received at that time as “form letters written by organized campaigns”, in other words, letters written by people who were able to cogently and coherently articulate their position but which got repeated over and over by numerous people. The fact that a bunch of people were able to submit the same comment over and over and each get counted suggests the commissioners and staffers are not far off in thinking most people, even those that should know better, see the comment process as a “vote”; if the comment process is supposed to be a battle of rational arguments, those numerous repeated comments shouldn’t even count towards the total, but should simply be listed as signatures on a single petition. Otherwise, it’s what people who disagree with their position can dismiss as astroturfing. What does that leave? Here’s a not-quite-random assortment of some of the comments from the remaining 40% – some of which may out to be form letters! – that were posted to the FCC’s site right before the Internet Slowdown protests resulted in a surge of form letters, all of them reprinted in their entirety:

Please do not change the current laws regarding net neutrality. Even under the current laws, ISPs in America are oligopolies in the best cases and monopolies in many rural and suburban areas, and abolishing net neutrality would give them an even stronger stranglehold on the market. The Internet in its current form is a precious resource and should not be sold out for the sake of the bottom line of a hand-full of companies who just so happen to be some of the richest lobbyists in Washington. At the very least, please honestly consider the repercussions of abolishing net neutrality before acting to protect the interests of Big Cable.Daniel McArtor

Net neutrality is the First Amendment of the Internet, the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) treat all data equally. As an Internet user, net neutrality is vitally important to me. The FCC should use its Title II authority to protect it.abc

I believe in the free accessibility of the internet for all people. The internet is a right that should not be filtered or throttled by corporations or governments. Please defend the free internet by maintaining net neutrality.Stephen Winter

Based on my knowledge internet was invented by research organizations and then given to public to bring the whole world closer. Verizon or comcast do not have any right over it just because they own the hardware which facilitates the internet. These companies precisely understand the importance of the internet, how everyone is dependent on it, and it is just a scam to make more money on one of the basic commodities in this country. I oppose the plea by comcast and verzion primarily for the following reason: It is not wrong for these companies to provide faster service to companies who would want to pay more, but my concern is how it will affect other companies/people who cannot afford the speed. I work with entrepreneurs who work on internet start ups, who hardly have any money or they are usually on a strict budget, but our projects sometimes compete with bigger companies. My biggest concern is as it is start ups face uneven field to start off. Now, on top of that if internet provider companies start providing faster service for the rich companies then the field gets even more uneven making it harder for small companies, startups, small businesses to compete with their rich counterparts. Last but not the least, I have a comment on Comcast. Comcast which is the largest internet provider.Gansh Soms

Stop the corporate greed, you stupid twats.  The public actually cares about this issue.  Baaaaaaaaaa.Common Sense

The FCC should amend its rules to ensure continued net neutrality.  The pending proposal does not do that.  Instead, it allows an already heavily concentrated industry to gain even greater control over public access to information by selling rights to a “fast lane.”  It also puts businesses, particularly new entrants in the market and those with less capital, at a clear competitive disadvantage.  This will harm the economy in the long term.  The proposed rule is poor public policy and should be rejected, and replaced by a rule that treats these corporate behemoths like the common carriers they are, as a practical matter.  Thank you for considering my comments.Darrell Murray

When people speak of the greatest inventions of mankind we speak of things like soap (combating bacteria and disease), steel (providing strength to structures our mind can conceive of), and the printing press (allowing the common man the chance to learn to read). Prior to the printing press and the Gutenberg Bible, literacy was solely for the church and the very few. The internet, in its current iteration is available for all and  the greatest tool to spread information. Please do not move forward with the Net Neutrality act. There is NOTHING to be gained by the people who use the internet if this is to go forward. Thank you, Charles Schoenherr

KEEP NET NEUTRALITY! KEEP NET NEUTRALITY! KEEP NET NEUTRALITY! I don’t want the cable companies bending me over my work table and @*!X#$ me up my nether regions. The internet doesn’t need a no move lane and laser speed limousine lane. Fire Wheeler. Putting him in charge of the FCC is like hiring a convicted child molester to baby sit your kids!Edward Mosle

Please protect net neutrality. The Internet and its use by regular consumers has advanced far enough that internet/broadband service providers should be treated as any other telecommunications service provider and regulated as such. Competition is good, and consumers should have multiple choices, but for a provider to interfere with the speed of data reaching the consumer or charging unfair prices by creating “fast lanes” is not fair to the consumers.Anahit

I favor HS Internet but I favor more competition among vendors for the consumer & retain the Tier pay plans for users alone & to regulate ISPs as Utility IE Information Utility alone can do much to expand Internet. Pricing should be competitive for consumers esp small business & home users. CUT regulations that deter this from marketplace. CUT any FCC bureaucracy that can impact Net neutrality alone BUT expand FCC enforcement div alone. & one should be able to change users for HS Internet like one can with mobile phones. Hate the mobile phone contracts anyway, consider wireless phone carriers as a Utility like Pacific Bell was years ago.Stephen Russell

Former Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who were on the commission for the 2002 and 2006 proceedings, have “argued that labeling the input of all ordinary citizens as worthless and emotional is misguided”, that the stories they tell “spoke to the failings of a consolidated media marketplace.” Going off their comments, Gangadharan calls on the FCC to “concede that personal experience can be substantive, too”, just as agencies do with consumer complaints, and set a precedent for all agencies to “treat[] rulemaking as a genuine democratic process, that value[s] peoples’ voice, history, and context”. But court proceedings, and other big decision-making processes, are not supposed to make decisions based on anecdotal evidence, but on actual data – especially since most ordinary people don’t have any concrete anecdotes that would argue against net neutrality. If there is a “much larger tension between federal agencies and the public”, it’s even deeper than Gangadharan indicates, because if people are simply sending in their personal anecdotes it’s because that’s what sways ordinary people like themselves, so if there is anything wrong with government agencies it’s in expecting human nature to be anything different from what it actually is. In any case, most of the above comments aren’t even anecdotes; at best they’re just parroting the talking points from the numerous places covering the issue. The commission shouldn’t make their decision based simply on how many comments come in on one side of the issue if the vast majority of them are irrelevant crap that add nothing to the debate (especially those coming from the Internet trolls Oliver specifically called on to comment), and if they do, it will be more out of consideration of the PR consequences, a recognition of the sheer number of people aware of the issue and their reaction to the FCC’s proposals, than anything else.

I filed my own comments to the FCC earlier this month on the current ownership review, which does not seem to have attracted the same intense interest as the ones Gangadharan references (perhaps because the commission is proposing more tightening of regulations than loosening this time around), and read through the rounds of comments that had already been submitted as part of my research for it, and as such I feel I have a good sense of the sorts of comments the commission is actually looking for. Assuming even those comments that do “meet the commission’s expectations for reasoned input” make any impact on the commissioners, as opposed to their minds already being made up for whatever reason on most issues (many of the comments on Gangadharan’s piece point to money being more of a motivating factor than quality of comments in the Commission’s decisions – see Wheeler’s cable-industry-lobbyist background), I think ordinary Americans can get their comments noticed by the FCC if they have a solid understanding of the issue and the arguments being thrown around about them, and at least a basic college-level understanding of rhetoric and argument. I invite you to look at my comments on the ownership review; they’re not perfect (I cite Wikipedia multiple times, including at least one thing that may be just plain wrong, and may be wrong about other things), but at 20 pages and with copious citations, as well as actually confronting the stakeholders’ arguments on the issues I address, I’d like to think it at least provides a framework for ordinary citizens to at least try to compete on a level playing field with the big corporations.

Ultimately, I think the real problem is that the things the FCC does just don’t get much attention from the media, except when it comes to super-obvious things like net neutrality, even though the things the FCC does affect every American. Of course, the big media companies probably don’t want anti-consolidation citizens weighing in on proposals that affect them, but even blogs don’t cover the FCC on a regular basis, focusing on a few big issues like net neutrality or the big cable company mergers with obvious impact on the consumer, without any appreciation of the larger context surrounding the debate on those issues (or even a nuanced discussion beyond the talking points), and mostly when the FCC’s proposals are things they hate (the sports blackout rule notwithstanding). There’s been little coverage of the incentive auction or the general issue of spectrum management (and those that are aware of it tend to support giving more spectrum to wireless companies, unless they’re specifically interested in the state of broadcasting, even though preserving and supporting broadcast TV is vital to preserving net neutrality in the long term), or of the ownership review, or of issues surrounding retransmission consent and a la carte, or of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee’s Republican leadership soliciting input on a proposed update of communications legislation. These are things that could have as much or more impact on the lives of Americans as the issues that get all the attention, but they tend to go under the radar. Having an FCC that works for the people may be more important than with any other agency, because preserving net neutrality and a diversity of voices in general has the overall effect of strengthening our democracy and ensuring the rest of the government works for the people as well, and thus keeping an eye on the FCC is more important than with any other agency as well.