FCC Comments Aren't 'Votes' And They Shouldn't Be, But That Doesn't Mean Public Opinion Isn't Useful And Important
from the public-comment dept
When the first analysis came out of the early batch of public comments on net neutrality, we pointed out the rather noteworthy fact that there were very few independent anti-net neutrality comments. Following the second round, we’re likely to see similar results, though there was some ballot-box stuffing (which we’ll get to in a minute). Still, Vox recently published a piece entitled: Why the FCC will probably ignore the public on network neutrality. The crux of the argument is that the comment effort is not the equivalent of a democratic vote, and that’s exactly right:
In the interviews I conducted for my dissertation, FCC commissioners and a handful of staffers (e.g., civil servants, as opposed to political appointees) explained that the rulemaking process does not function like a popular democracy. In other words, you can’t expect that the comment you submit opposing a particular regulation will function like a vote. Rulemaking is more akin to a court proceeding. Changes require systematic, reliable evidence, not emotional expressions. And with the exception of Democrat Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, the people I spoke with at the FCC considered citizen input during the media ownership proceeding as emotional and superficial content.
One staffer explained why some comments in the record matter more than others, saying a lot of comments submitted by ordinary citizens are not “usually very deep or analytical or, you know, substantiated by evidence, documentary or otherwise. They’re usually expressions of opinion.” That means these kinds of comments are “not usually reviewed at a very high level, because they didn’t need to be.”
Or as another staffer said, “I find the whole rulemaking context almost hilarious in many instances, because you know you’re reading something, and you know it’s not true. And you’re guessing, you know, the person is hallucinating.” Ordinary comments were, in other words, prone to error and lacked truthfulness, in the eyes of many of the Commission’s staff. They also represented one person’s opinion or experience, whereas according to staff, comments submitted by legal or economic experts collated information in a more systematic way, and from a much broader population of consumers.
Indeed, this actually makes a lot of sense. The rulemaking process isn’t supposed to be a democratic setup, nor could it work properly in that manner. And, yes, many of the comments being submitted are nonsensical and effectively useless. The staffers are exactly right to focus on the comments that are analytical and are supported by evidence and details (and an understanding of the law). And while some people get up in arms about this, let’s just take the ballot-box stuffing by some anti-net neutrality folks to show how pointless thinking of this as a “vote” is.
Soon after the whole “Internet Slowdown Day” effort to get people to contact the FCC and Congress in favor of real net neutrality rules, a somewhat nutty extremist group called “American Commitment,” run by a guy named Phil Kerpen, declared “victory,” saying that despite all those sites (including ours) taking part in the effort, their own “Stop Internet Regulation” petition got more signatures. Except, their actual petition was nutty misleading alarmist bullshit, pretending to be about stopping “the full federal takeover… of the internet.”
Even more telling, the only way that American Commitment actually got about 800,000 “signatures” on its petition was to flat out lie and buy. Beyond the misleading rhetoric above, it appears that American Commitment bought a bunch of email lists of other conspiracy-minded folks and then peppered them with claims like the following about what the government was trying to do in passing net neutrality rules:
“Erase your internet freedoms, upend your right to privacy, censor the content you view on Internet, seize control of e-commerce, keep records of the sites you visit and when, track what you read and for how long and so much more!”
Except, um, no. Nothing in any of the rules would enable any of that even remotely. Indeed, as Jason Koebler at Vice notes in that link above, despite Kerpin’s triumphant claims of “beating” the Internet Slowdown people, the press almost entirely ignored him (even the “right wing” press), because everyone knows his effort was a joke.
Kerpen’s grassroots coalition of 808,363 petition signers came almost entirely through paid email advertisements sent out through popular conservative websites such as Town Hall, The Washington Times, Human Events, and Red State. Email blasts were sent to hundreds of thousands of people with subject lines that had nothing to do with net neutrality, such as “Only Days to Stop Obama’s Takeover.”
Kerpen played on the far right’s fear of government and dislike of Obama to get hundreds of thousands of people to sign a series of petitions that have no information about the issue at hand and has no links to places to learn more about the issue. A Senatorial press office told me it hasn’t received the petitions, which Kerpen said he had “hand delivered” before admitting that they could have been misplaced.
On top of that, Kerpen massively exaggerated his numbers, counting each “signature” as three “letters” since the petition was sent to every person’s two Senators and then their House representative.
Koebler presents further evidence of what a joke the campaign was, noting that a report on the “most influential tweet” in favor of Kerpen’s petition was this one, which got all of… one retweet.
However, all that said, this doesn’t mean that more general comments aren’t helpful. What this whole process has shown is that the American public does care about the internet, and wants it to be kept as open and free as possible for innovation to occur on the internet. The public’s interest in the topic does matter in making it clear that this is an issue that people care about and that they won’t be happy if anyone mucks that up. From that, the FCC should recognize that people are watching what they do and are concerned about the eventual outcomes, even if the vast majority of them may not understand the nuances behind things like Title II, Section 706, “commercially reasonable” and paid prioritization.
There are multiple issues at play here. Having 3.7 million comments filed with the FCC (the vast majority of them in favor of protecting openness on the internet) is an important statement about what the public really wants (an open internet). However, the FCC has a job to do in deciding (1) what the right solution is and (2) what’s in its power and mandate to do (the problem with the past rule was it went outside of the FCC’s powers under the statute). To actually get to that answer, the FCC is likely to rely mostly on its own experts, and use the very small number of comments that dug into the more detailed and nuanced analyses of the issues at play. And that’s the way it should be.
None of this means the FCC will eventually come to the right solution — in fact, there’s a good chance it will mess things up, because the FCC is pretty good at that sort of thing. But it’s wrong to argue that if that happens, it’s because the FCC “ignored” everyone. The real situation is more complex.