by Mike Masnick
Tue, Oct 21st 2014 8:09am
by Mike Masnick
Thu, Oct 9th 2014 10:42am
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
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.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.
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.
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."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.
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.
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.
by Mike Masnick
Thu, Sep 4th 2014 11:30am
from the fascinating dept
The most bizarre comment, however, has to come from Village Roadshow. Village Roadshow is the Australian movie studio that the US State Department admitted was used as the token "Australian" movie studio in the MPAA's big lawsuit against iiNet. iiNet is the Australian ISP that the MPAA (with Village Roadshow appearing as "the local face") sued for not waving a magic wand and stopping piracy. iiNet won its case at basically every stage of the game, and that big legal win is really at the heart of these new regulatory proposals. Apparently, Village Roadshow's CEO still hasn't gotten over the loss in the legal case.
I read a lot of public comments to government requests. Comments from individuals may vary in style and quality, but generally speaking, comments from large businesses and professional organizations take on a certain very professional tone. You can see that in basically every comment listed in this particular comment period. Except for Village Roadshow's. The tone is both exceptionally informal and... almost frantic. The use of hyperbole is quite incredible. It claims without these reforms the entire industry will die, and says that infringement is on par with terrorism and pedophilia. Just the intro itself basically highlights the style and tone:
Piracy, if not addressed, will shut down the Australian feature film production industry entirely. It will rip out the heart of the cinema and TV industries, creating massive unemployment and slashing the profitability of taxpaying companies.And this is from the company whose CEO is refusing to take part in a public Q&A about the issue because he claims that any such event will be "filled with crazies."
The problem is urgent. Village Roadshow estimates the theatrical business is down 12% as a result of piracy. Rupert Murdoch interviewed in Australia said: “between 15 and 20 percent of Fox’s revenue is being eaten up by illegal downloads”!
The problem is urgent as piracy is spreading like a highly infectious disease and as bad habits become entrenched, they become harder to eradicate. Also of course high speed broadband is just around the corner.
The dangers posed by piracy are so great, the goal should be total eradication or zero tolerance. Just as there is no place on the internet for terrorism or paedophilia, there should be no place for theft that will impact the livelihoods of the 900,000 people whose security is protected by legitimate copyright.
The filing also quotes Steve Jobs from Walter Isaacson's book:
“From the earliest days at Apple, I realised that we thrived when we created intellectual property. If people copied or stole our software we’d be out of business. If we weren’t protected there’d be no incentive for us to make new software or product designs. If protection of intellectual property begins to dissipate, creative companies will disappear or never get started. But there’s a simpler reason. It’s wrong to steal. It hurts other people. And it hurts your own character.”Of course, there's that other famous Steve Jobs quote that is a bit more accurate:
"Picasso had a saying -- 'good artists copy; great artists steal' -- and we've always been shameless about stealing great ideas."And, at least for that quote, we've actually got video of him saying it rather than having it paraphrased through a third party.
Village Roadshow's filing actually claims that Brandis' proposal does not go far enough in making ISPs liable and forcing them to magically make piracy disappear:
Vitally, in Village’s view, the question of “reasonable steps” presupposes the clear establishment of ISP’s being potentially liable for infringement on their services. It is crucial that this first step be properly legislated – and then ISP’s will approach the consultation process with a legal incentive to co-operate. As the Discussion Paper states “Extending the authorisation liability is essential ….”. Village is concerned that the proposed amendment to Section 101 of the Copyright Act suggested in the Discussion Paper does not clearly achieve this, and supports clear drafting to achieve that objective.The underlines are in the original. Village Roadshow says that it would love to be able to bombard ISPs with notices in a graduated response (i.e., three strikes type) system, but that it will refuse to do so if it actually has to pay for each notice (apparently Village Roadshow not only wants ISPs to be the copyright cops, but it wants them to do so for free).
The entire comment filing comes off as ill-thought-out ranting, or last minute answers to a take home exam of a procrastinating junior high school student. Perhaps my favorite example of this is in response to the question "How can the impact of any measures to address online copyright infringement best be measured?" and Village Roadshow starts off its response:
Powerfully this will be measured by the results.Powerfully, this comment is not.
by Mike Masnick
Thu, Aug 21st 2014 3:42pm
from the a-mistake dept
Intermediaries — usually the websites where trolls post comments — can step in to revoke the privilege of anonymity, or even remove abusive speech that violates their community guidelines but when trolling turns into cyberharassment or cyberstalking, the law can and should intervene.Meanwhile, a Washington Post article by Kevin Wallsten and Melinda Tarsi talks up their "research" which (the headline suggests) says we should do away with anonymous comments entirely. The reasoning? Their study showed that people liked websites less when they had anonymous comments.
To shed light on whether anonymous comments actually matter for how people feel towards the media, we conducted a survey experiment in which Internet users were exposed to varying amounts of media criticism in an anonymous comments section attached to a hypothetical news story from USA Today. Specifically, our subjects were randomly assigned to a “media praise” condition (where comments used positive adjectives to describe the high quality of the outlet’s reporting), a “media criticism” condition (where comments used negative adjectives to address the low quality of the outlet’s reporting), a “mixed” condition (where half of the comments were drawn from the “media praise” condition and half were drawn from the “media criticism” treatment) or a “no comments” condition (where the comments section was left empty). We then asked our participants to rate the overall news media and USA Today on a “feeling thermometer.”Of course, that focuses just on a comment section in which the focus is on cheering on or complaining about the reporting. What about all of the useful conversations and discussions that are enabled because of the anonymity? That gets totally ignored. As we've noted over and over again in our weekly highlighting of the most insightful and funniest comments -- as voted on by the community here -- it's quite common to see anonymous comments come out on top. And that's because many of our commenters -- both anonymous and not -- often join in on the conversation, rather than just drop two cents about whether they like or dislike the article itself (which the study above presumes).
Consistent with the concerns of the “no anonymity” movement, we found strong evidence that anonymous posts shape the attitudes of news audiences. Specifically, we found that Internet users became significantly more negative towards the news media and USA Today when exposed to a story with an anonymous comments section. Somewhat surprisingly, we found that this pattern of negativity held even when the anonymous comments praised the media’s reporting. Below is a graph showing the average rating of USA Today and the news media in each experimental condition:
Thankfully, at least some are pushing back on this silly idea of banning anonymity. Gabriella Coleman has a great NY Times piece about the important values of anonymity and even how it enables those marginalized by society or victims of crimes to speak out where they otherwise wouldn't be able to do so:
Yes, some people abuse anonymity, but many use it wisely. And yes, some people are obnoxious online. But confusing the two things and assuming that anonymity automatically leads to obnoxious behavior is just wrong. We wouldn't be the site we are today if we didn't make it easy for anyone to comment, anonymously or not. The contributions in our community from people who choose to remain anonymous are often insightful, witty and educational. Are there some people who abuse the privilege? Sure. But focusing on the few bad players and wiping out a powerful tool because of it seems incredibly short sighted.
But we should also consider what we would lose were we to ban, or even discourage, the use of anonymity on the Internet. Debates about trolls routinely conflate anonymity with incivility but a broader look at online activities reveals that public good can come when users can hide their identity.
For example, medical patients and mothers discuss sensitive issues (be they clinical or related to parenting) in pseudonymous forums, allowing for candid discussions of what might otherwise be stigmatizing subjects. Anonymous activists rely on the web for whistle-blowing or to speak truth to power without fear of retribution. And, in a strange twist, victims of hate crimes use anonymity to speak out as well: anonymity can empower those who seek consolation and justice to speak out against assailants enabled by the same processes.
Anonymous expression has been a foundation of our political culture since its inception, underwriting monumental declarations like the Federalist Papers. At its best, it puts the attention on the message, rather than the messenger.
by Mike Masnick
Fri, Aug 15th 2014 1:30pm
from the so-what-will-the-fcc-do dept
The comments did include "anti" net neutrality positions. They included statements opposing the "FCC's crippling new regulations," as commenters wrote. But they came from a form letter, or template, and all comment clusters that came from templates (five separate ones in all, four of five supporting net neutrality) were collapsed into a single node.The analysis shows that about 50% of the comments came from templates (again, many of them coming from "pro net neutrality") folks, but it's fascinating to see that once you get outside of the form letters, the number of anti-net neutrality letters basically doesn't register. That's kind of interesting to me, because I've actually been building a list of just those letters (I've found a few) and trying to reach out to the folks who wrote them to find out what made them write those letters. I've made contact with a few, but as soon as I explain what I'm doing... they all stop responding. I hope to have more on this soon.
Taken with the entire body of comments sampled, there weren't enough unique or organic anti-net-neutrality comments to register on the map.
Either way, it seems fairly clear that, of the people who actually took the time to express their full opinions about net neutrality, almost all of them are in favor of having the FCC actually do something real. The only question is if the FCC will ever actually listen.
by Mike Masnick
Tue, Aug 5th 2014 8:34pm
from the open-records dept
Because of the sheer number of comments and the great public interest in what they say, Chairman Wheeler has asked the FCC IT team to make the comments available to the public today in a series of six XML files, totaling over 1.4 GB of data – approximately two and half times the amount of plain-text data embodied in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The release of the comments as Open Data in this machine-readable format will allow researchers, journalists and others to analyze and create visualizations of the data so that the public and the FCC can discuss and learn from the comments we’ve received. Our hope is that these analyses will contribute to an even more informed and useful reply comment period, which ends on September 10. We will make available additional XML files covering reply comments after that date.While the more cynical among you may see this as more of a statement on the rather weak capabilities of the current FCC's system for handling searching through the submitted comments, it's still nice to see at least a move towards openness and transparency in sharing this data for others to search through. As we've noted, we've been digging into some of the data on the comments, and hopefully this will make the process much easier.
by Mike Masnick
Fri, Jul 18th 2014 2:21pm
from the performance-art? dept
Kurt Schaake of Lawrence, Kansas, appears to have filed the Dishwasher User Instruction manual for a Whirlpool dishwasher as his comment.
by Mike Masnick
Tue, Jul 15th 2014 10:04am
from the make-your-fast-lane-jokes-now dept
Thu, Jul 10th 2014 8:36pm
from the the-debate-is-on dept
Was Blog for Arizona out of line for outing John Huppenthal as an anonymous commenter, as Mr. Geigner suggests in his recent post?
In this specific case, absolutely not. Among other things, Huppenthal invited us to publish his comments; he was so careless that his identity could be ascertained from the comments themselves, with no reference to the IP addresses we had, and he was posting from a government agency, which would be required to divulge the sites he visited if asked.
Let's put all that aside and approach the more fundamental question: How secure should a John Huppenthal be in his anonymity? He cited the Founding Fathers, several of who wrote anonymously when penning the Federalist Papers.
But the issue here is not the right to anonymous speech. Nobody disputes that right. The issue is whether there is a right to anonymous speech with zero risk of being exposed, even if the speaker is a public figure.
In our judicial system, very few rights are absolute. Why? Because there are competing interests.
For example, public figures do not receive the same level of protection from defamatory statements as ordinary citizens do. If I publish an unfavorable statement against Joe Sixpack, Joe only need show the statement was false in a suit for defamation. But if I make the same statement about an elected official, he has to show not only that the statement was false, but that I made it with reckless disregard for the truth. Why the difference? Because of the competing interest. As a society we don't want people with information about public figures to be overly fearful of coming forward.
If we were to attempt absolute protection of the anonymity of public figures in their online comments, we necessarily would have to encroach upon the freedom of the press and the associated protection of confidentiality of sources. Suppose Blog for Arizona did not expose Huppenthal directly, but instead had one of our writers speak off the record to a reporter, who then called Huppenthal out based on a confidential source and asked Huppenthal to request that Blog for Arizona publicize all its information. Huppenthal would have no practical choice but to comply, or just fess up. So, unless we're willing to encroach upon the freedom of the press, the protection of anonymous commenters could not be complete to the degree Mr. Geigner desires.
Now, consider the issue from the perspective of the blogger. I have knowledge that an elected official who is up for re-election, John Huppenthal, is a racist who believes the Holocaust was more the work of Darwin than of Hitler. Should I have no ability to let the public know what Huppenthal is all about? Perhaps, but only if Blog for Arizona and I had guaranteed Mr. Huppenthal that his anonymity would be protected. Otherwise, imposing some sort of legal gag order on bloggers does not seem the way to go.
The bottom line: We don't need to make it any easier for creeps like John Huppenthal to go undetected. A risk of detection is inherent in anonymous speech. Whatever chilling effect arises from the outing of a Huppenthal, a chilling effect that I submit is minor or non-existent, is outweighed by the value to the public of the outing.
by Mike Masnick
Tue, Jun 24th 2014 12:16pm
from the that's-not-the-story dept
Yes, stupid, pointless and juvenile comments will happen. That's part of the internet. But to focus only on those comments is to ignore two much more important things: (1) the sheer number of folks expressing concern about the big broadband companies messing up the internet and (2) the very large number of thoughtful, intelligent and insightful comments that have been submitted as well. As of right now, the FCC shows somewhere around 125,000 comments, but that hasn't been updated in a while, and we've heard that they may have double that (or more) waiting to be posted. And, yes, when you have ~300,000 comments on a contentious issue, some of them are going to be silly, but that outpouring of opinion suggests that this is a topic that the public is very interested in, even if not everyone is able to express their thoughts in the most professional of ways.