When the Federal Communications Commission took up a controversial proposal to upend “net neutrality” last year, the reaction from the public was overwhelming: 22 million comments poured into the agency.
What was less clear was what the public actually said.
A number of researchers and data sleuths have concluded that many of the comments, perhaps millions of them, were “bots,” automated submissions spat at the agency, probably from people on both sides of the issue.
A new report from Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society set out to examine the non-bot comments, by focusing on about 800,000 unique submissions that were not automatically generated.
The analysis also includes a manual review of 1,000 of those comments, and concludes that 99.7 percent of them, all but three, were opposed to the FCC’s action.
A Stanford University analysis published excerpts of comments submitted to the FCC from residents of Montana’s 1st congressional district who opposed the agency’s efforts to dismantle an Obama-era “net neutrality” policy. Supporters of the Republican-led FCC effort say many of the comments were submitted at the urging of interest groups and fail to offer sound suggestions that would shape agency policy.
Martin City, Mont.:
“Once again, the big companies want to take away our freedom of what information we receive by slowing down sites they deem unfit or that haven’t paid them the amount of money they could get if access to the internet was controlled ... by the supplier.”
Great Falls, Mont.:
“My livelihood is dependent on net neutrality and I urge you not to allow businesses to artificially create roadblocks and fleece consumers for more and more money.”
“As a student, software developer, and internet citizen, I depend heavily on my service provider(s) to remain fair in their offerings. Without regulations, [internet service companies] will further abuse their effective monopolies and will strong-arm content providers.”
Source: Stanford University, Center for Internet and Society
The analysis is meant to help the public “understand the volume and sentiment of the comments to the FCC about its net neutrality repeal.”
The FCC’s order, championed by Republican Chairman Ajit Pai, reversed an earlier policy set during the Obama era that was meant to protect net neutrality, generally defined as ensuring the free flow of content over the internet.
Pai’s order specifically reversed a policy that forbade internet services providers from blocking or throttling content or engaging in “paid prioritization,” assigning content to fast lanes based on monetary arrangements.
Critics of Pai’s order in the K-12 community fear it could restrict the flow of online educational content to schools, as deep-pocketed content providers pay for faster access to customers. Some education companies also fear that their ability to deliver affordable content to teachers and students will diminish because of the ruling.
Pai, who was appointed to the chairman’s post by President Donald Trump, argued that such fears are overblown, suggesting that the Obama-era policy amounted to over-regulation that stifled internet providers’ ability to innovate.
Democratic, Republican Support
The Stanford analysis was authored by Ryan Singel, a media and strategy fellow at the center. Singel founded Contextly, an online engagement platform for publishers, and he opposed Pai’s order, arguing that it would have hurt startup companies like his.
Singel’s analysis builds on earlier research by data scientist Jeff Kao, who used machine-learning methods to break down the flood of FCC comments to determine which were virtually identical with each other. That process allowed Kao to filter out 800,000 “unique” comments, which were outliers in terms of their wording and structure.
Not all of the non-unique comments sent to the FCC were fake, notes Singel. Many people submitted form letters created by interest groups, and Kao’s research confirmed that those individuals in fact acted to submit those comments.
The FCC has not responded to a request for comment on the Stanford center’s findings.
Singel also breaks down the 800,000 unique comments on a political map, matching them with congressional districts and states.
He concludes that while support for net neutrality was strongest among traditionally Democratic-learning urban districts, GOP districts backed the concept too. The average number of unique comments from congressional districts was 1,489. In those represented by Democrats, it was 1,846, while in Republican ones, it was 1,202.
(Those comments are from a pool of 646,000 that Singel geo-coded to congressional districts. They are from the same pool of unique comments that are 99.7 percent pro-net neutrality, meaning they are almost all pro-net neutrality, he said in an e-mail.)
Singel also found that many commenters had a nuanced understanding of federal regulations tied to net neutrality, such as Title II of the federal Communications Act. He also said his data indicates that rural commenters were deeply concerned about losing net neutrality protections.
“Rural commenters who have slow and expensive internet service with few, if any, choices of providers,” he writes, “express strong concerns about the ability of their provider to unfairly interfere with their choices about what they do online.”
Daniel Lyons, an associate professor at Boston College’s law school, said he didn’t dispute the methods behind the Stanford analysis, but he cautioned against reading too much into the crush of online opinions that deluged the FCC.
The comment process is designed to allow the public to give agencies like the FCC input, Lyons said. But the larger goal should be to provide the agencies with specific information about the law in question or problems with a federal proposal that will directly shape decisionmaking. And many comments fail to do, argued Lyons, who supported Pai’s order.
“It is not meant to be straw polling,” said Lyons. And even if many pro-net neutrality comments were legitimate, they aren’t necessarily a measure of public sentiment so much as “the ability of certain interest groups to gin up their base,” he added.
Fred Campbell, the director of Tech Knowledge, a free-market think tank, said that ultimately the FCC is within its rights—those granted to it by Congress—to set net neutrality policy. The number of public comments should not be treated as a proxy for who has the stronger argument, he argued. The agency instead should focus on “material” comments that make specific legal or policy arguments, pro or con—and many of the comments sampled in the Stanford analysis were not clearing that threshold, he said.
The FCC process does not make sense if it’s about “little more than tallying votes,” Campbell said.
Taken on its own, he said, the sheer “number of comments one way or another should have no impact on the FCC process.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2018 edition of Education Week as Tide of Comments to FCC Favored Net Neutrality, Report Says