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In promoting net neutrality, the FCC submitted two pages of proposed rules, largely based upon its 2010 Open Internet Report & Order, which makes prohibitions against blocking and throttling of Internet traffic, as well as managing Internet traffic in unfairly discriminatory ways. When the dust settled on the FCC’s round of public comments for net neutrality rulemaking on 18 July, it appeared some 1.1 million comments were submitted.
The debate has become so convoluted on the topic of “net neutrality” that there is a call to rename the issue. While there are a variety of perspectives, the two policy proposals are essentially to pursue a light regulatory approach under revised 2010 rules or to subject Internet service providers (ISPs) and the rest of the Internet value chain to Title II of the Communications Act — meaning monopoly telephone era, utility-style regulation.
The FCC has released the raw data of the comments, but work is required to come up with meaningful conclusions of the information. InsideSources estimates that at least 250,000 comments came from petitions and form letters. Analytics firm Quid corroborated that number in a study commissioned by the Knight Foundation which funds advocacy groups in favor of Title II Internet regulation.
CREDOAction, a political action committee funded by CredoMobile (a virtual mobile operator reselling access from Sprint) takes credit for 117,460 individual comments. Free Press, the usual heavyweight in net neutrality activism and creator of “actions” such as Occupy the FCC, submitted just under 26,000 comments. InsideSources also revealed that organizations outside the United States have been active in submitting comments, including the Canadian OpenMedia which boasts over 128,000 signatures in protest to the FCC’s proposed approach.
Many thousands of comments are inane, impertinent, or obscene, and would fail to pass FCC decency standards and could not be read on radio or television. Allegedly one commenter posted a washing machine manual. Indeed there may be just 300 substantive comments in total.
This episode illustrates some of the best and worst features of the so-called open Internet. The Internet enables an unprecedented ability for public participation, but it also creates opportunities for mockery and abuse. It’s unfortunate that so many commenters did not take the process seriously. Moreover it is possible that the comment box was gamed by digital tools such as bots, fake comments, and other automated techniques. Unfortunately substance can be drowned out by systems.
Indeed if ISPs had any incentive to block content as The New York Times editorial board declares, it would be in this rulemaking process, but every one of these 1.1 million comments (a record for an FCC proceeding), whether sacred or profane, was delivered by America’s Internet service providers.
Because every comment counts, even the stupid ones, the FCC in a difficult position. It has to dignify the comment box and take the numbers on faith, even the basest comments. Indeed the FCC is actually responding to each comment. Those of us who want a serious discussion are at a disadvantage. Alas, policymaking is frequently a numbers game. Issues will win not on their merits, but by which supporters yell the loudest and make the biggest spectacle.
The upside however is that there are still many Americans who don’t know about net neutrality and don’t have an opinion. The groups that succeeded in submitting so many comments largely did an outreach to their established constituency. Getting the facts to people who are not yet imprinted with this issue is crucially important.
A second round of comments to the FCC are due September 15. While a number of distinct organizations and scholars have pointed out the downsides of Internet regulation, there has not been a concerted effort to galvanize the public against Title II — until now.
TechFreedom is coordinating the campaign “Don’t Break the Net.” Its coalition is not against net neutrality per se. Indeed it embraces the core principles of Internet freedom: users being able to access the content, applications and services of their choice with the device of their choice with transparency in Internet access contracts. The goal of Don’t Break the Net is to protect the Internet from being subjected to monopoly regulation from the telephone era. The goal is to get at least 100,000 sign-ups to demonstrate that a significant number of Americans care about freedom of the Internet from government intervention and control.
Sign up today. Every person counts. Tweet #DontBreakTheNet
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