American public opinion on a free and open internet is bipartisan and undivided. According to a poll conducted last summer, more than 75 percent of Americans support net neutrality – banning service providers from charging more for the speed of your connection or access to certain web content.
Yet, the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates internet service providers, has considered repealing net neutrality before, including in 2010 and 2014. Both previous efforts failed, in part due to digital political organizing. The attempt in 2014 drew a plea from TV host John Oliver asking people to submit comments to the FCC against its repeal. The resulting traffic led the agency’s website to crash.
So, earlier this year, when FCC chairman Ajit Pai revealed his plan to repeal net neutrality, the FCC faced predictable backlash. In response to his proposal, the agency’s site received 22 million public comments last year. And in the weeks leading up to the mid-December vote, protests were organized across the country, taking over public parks, using hashtags on Twitter, and posting photo appeals on Instagram, asking people to call Capitol Hill in defense of net neutrality.
While the bulk of comments repeated standard boilerplate text, and millions were likely from fake emails, many Americans used the comment period to share with the FCC why they supported net neutrality.
"As someone who lives in a rural area with basically one option for an ISP (Spectrum), it is important that a company which already has a monopoly in many ways is not allowed to also influence my browsing ability when it comes to streaming material. … Please show the guts to say no to these huge corporations and stand up for the rights of the consumers. That is your job. Thank you."
“I went to college for computer science and programming. When I try to create an app or a website or a cloud service how can I hope to compete in an internet that is not an equal playing field and the big companies can determine what content succeeds and what content fails?”
How did the FCC deal with these and other legitimate comments from ordinary Americans?
Commissioner Brendan Carr, in his opinion justifying the repeal decision in the 3-2 vote on December 14, wrote off the bulk of public comments as insignificant. “Millions of comments that simply say something along the lines of ‘keep net neutrality’ or other colorful language we can't say in public – whether they are submitted by real people, bots, or honey badgers – have no impact on the decision.” During the public comment period last spring, Commissioner Pai made it clear that the only significant comments would be those that made “serious legal” arguments. And while Carr claimed that the repeal order “engages with and responds” to significant comments “in a credible and substantive way,” not a single public comment was cited in the final order released on January 4.
The commission, as an independent federal agency with a mission to regulate business and preserve competition, is not directly bound to public opinion. It is, however, bound to serve the public interest. And in determining whether an action such as the repeal of net neutrality is in the public interest requires the FCC and other federal agencies to listen respectfully to those whose interests will be affected – such as the millions of users who rely on the internet’s level playing field to gain attention to their ideas, launch valuable new services, or simply stay informed and connected. But as Carr’s comments made clear, it made no difference in the FCC’s decision whether ordinary Americans or “bots” and “honey badgers” submitted form comments: neither mattered.
A recent Pew analysis found the majority of comments came from temporary or duplicate emails. And in November, an FCC spokesperson told ArsTechnica that the agency knew at least 7.5 million of these comments were fraudulent — identical comments submitted using thousands of stolen personal identifiers like names and addresses.
“The message from this FCC official seemed to be that a huge percentage of the comments can be safely ignored,” according to the ArsTechnica article. “Allowing the docket to be filled with junk made it easier for Pai’s office to argue that the comments should not be seen as a legitimate expression of public opinion.”
Though fake submissions appeared on both sides of the debate, one researcher concluded that 99 percent of original comments submitted by real people were against the repeal.
It’s obvious any government agency should be responsive to the public it serves. That is what the public comment periods are for. In its decision on net neutrality, the FCC failed to uphold this responsibility. Especially when more and more political involvement takes place online, these online comments should have been thoroughly vetted and filtered so they could be taken seriously. And that’s particularly true when the freedom of the internet – the very tool that allows such political mobilization in the first place – is at stake.
Image credit: (Creative Commons/Credo Action)