Today is the last day to submit comments on the proposal to kill open internet rules to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Good luck with that, though. The public comment period has been complete disaster from the start, and a new study funded by big telecom suggests that the record-setting 21 million comments already submitted are basically worthless.
The report in question comes from Emprata LLC, a DC-based data research company, and was paid for by Broadband for America, a big telecom lobbying group. That second detail is important, since the report ultimately claims that a larger proportion of the comments from verifiable addresses were in favor of repealing the open internet rules. On the flip side, Emprata found the vast majority of comments both for and against repealing the FCC’s open internet rules consisted of form letters, with many coming from “seemingly ‘fake’ email addresses.” These findings suggest that the protest against repeal is driven by bots and that more actual humans want the open internet rules repealed. Which certainly sounds like a conclusion that big telecom lobbyists would love. We’ve also seen evidence of the opposite being true.
It would be convenient for net neutrality advocates if the story was as simple as that. But as even the study itself admits, it’s “very difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from the comments found in the docket.” And it’s the FCC’s fault.
The crux of the problem is the fact that the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) has no way of authenticating individual users or comments. That’s why you had so many duplicate comments, comments from disposable email addresses, and comments that were just form letters from activist groups. Because any human or bot can simply fill out a form on the FCC’s website and submit a comment, it’s almost impossible to tell which of these comments are “genuine,” to use Emprata’s word.
And so, as with any large data set, there are a lot of different ways to look at the 21.9 million comments so far submitted to the FCC. Taken at face value, over 13 million comments against repealing the open internet rules were submitted by August 22, when the Emprata study pulled the data, and a little over 8.5 million comments in favor of repealing the rules were submitted. If you scrape away the duplicates, those numbers whittle down to 1.7 million unique comments against repeal and 24,000 unique comments in favor of repeal. That means that some 90 percent of all comments were dupes.
Still, 1.7 million to 24,000 amounts to an overwhelming majority of people who do not want to repeal the open internet rules. Emprata did find a way to reverse that conclusion, claiming that more commenters favored repeal, by looking exclusively at comments with completely filled out email and home address forms. That feels like the researchers just adjusted their parameters to prove a conclusion, however. And other research has already shown that an anti-net neutrality bot has filed tens of thousands of comments in favor of repealing the rules by using unsuspecting Americans’ email and home addresses. John Oliver even did a whole segment about it.
So who knows what to believe. The evidence that anti-net neutrality bots were posting fake comments back in May was bookended by claims that the FCC was hit with a cyberattack that led to more than 160 comments being posted per minute, crashing the agency’s website. The FCC’s chief information officer even claimed in secret internal documents that the commission’s servers fell victim to “multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks.” Two months later, the FCC reversed its position and insisted that such documents didn’t exist. But clearly something was askew.
What we do know is that many Americans do want open internet rules. If you look back to the initial battle to pass these open internet rules a few years ago, it’s easy to see that there’s fervent public support for net neutrality. Some 4 million people filed comments regarding those rules and actually broke the FCC’s website, though that record has obviously since been broken by the current fight against repealing the rules. A Sunlight Foundation study in 2014 found that “less than 1 percent of comments were clearly opposed to net neutrality.” While one could argue that a nonprofit focused on open government could provide a biased analysis, it’s really tough to argue that the tables have turned so drastically in the past three years that the majority of Americans now oppose net neutrality—especially when a study funded by big telecom is suggesting you do so.
There’s also behavior from the FCC as well as big telecom companies that makes the public support for net neutrality seem irrelevant. In May, Trump-appointed FCC chairman Ajit Pai said publicly that no “numerical threshold” was going to going to sway his plans to take a “weed-whacker” to the open internet rules passed under Obama’s FCC. Pai has also attacked pro-net neutrality groups like Free Press and complained about a “larger movement” against “free speech” that stands to affect outlets like the Drudge Report.
How that has anything to do with preventing internet service providers from throttling or blocking content is unclear. It is, however, clear that the current FCC chair cares less about the public’s opinion on net neutrality and more about the disparate political interests of special interest groups. The Trump White House approves of Pai’s plan, and telecom companies like Verizon are already starting to throttle content, knowing that regulatory action from the FCC is unlikely. Sucks.
So, if you care about net neutrality, you still have a few hours to submit comments to the FCC. The commission’s chairman probably won’t read it or generally care about what the public has to say.
You can also vote in the next election. While the FCC is supposed to be a nonpartisan commission focused on doing what’s best for the United States, we’ve seen the agency morph into a gnarly beast of a political machine in recent years. That means when you’re voting for your next president, you’re also voting for the next FCC commissioner who will tug the strings of regulations that dictate how the internet will work for the foreseeable future. It’s not a perfect system. It’s a clusterfuck, in fact. But at least we still have some semblance of a democracy in America. Just a little bit.