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CHAPTER V - Appendix: Public Participation and the Challenge of Engagement

Public Participation Sources and the Challenge of Engagement

The stakes were high and a decision on net neutrality was imminent. 2014 was the most visible year for open Internet issues ever. The FCC received nearly four million public comments on the matter, more comments than on any other issue in its history, including the controversial “wardrobe malfunction” during Janet Jackson’s 2002 Super Bowl performance. (That was previously the high water mark for communications to the FCC.)

But because net neutrality is “more boring [a term] than a pair of Dockers,” as comedian John Oliver described it in June 2014, just how much the public was willing to engage in the issue was an open question at the year’s outset. As part of a challenge from Forum sponsor, the Knight Foundation, the FOCAS group addressed how to bring more Americans into the dialogue on Internet governance and policies—people beyond the familiar groups that often participate.

To better understand the groundwork, Quid, a San Francisco-based data analysis firm, was commissioned by the Knight Foundation to take a closer look at public engagement in net neutrality throughout the year. The firm analyzed news mentions, social media conversations, lobbying activity on the issue and the more than one million public comments and emails received by the FCC to its open docket item on how to enforce the principle after a federal court struck down its previous enforcement power in January 2014.

More specifically, Quid read 250,000 comments and emails sent into the FCC, scanned individual tweets and traced them to their sources, clustered them into thematic conversations, and analyzed news volume on the issue over the course of the year. Researchers found that interest in the issue hit peaks during the following events:

  • FCC announcements;
  • Court decisions;
  • Major tech companies getting involved in net neutrality, such as when Netflix Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings spoke out against Internet service providers having too concentrated power; and
  • John Oliver’s 13-minute segment explaining and railing against ISP’s.

All of these incidents drove news coverage, amplified by social sharing. The firm further found that different channels amplify different messages. For example, when comparing net neutrality coverage among different types of news outfits, Quid’s analysis shows the technology industry press accounts for nearly 40 percent of the coverage.

Meanwhile, on local news outlets and in the financial press, coverage of net neutrality is disproportionately low when compared with any other “regular day of news” item that would run in those broadcasts or newspapers.

Analyzing the Comments

The FCC received more engagement from the public on net neutrality than any other previous rulemaking measure. In total, it received nearly 1.1 million comments on the measure at the time of the analysis. (The total eventually reached four million.)
Quid’s analysis of what was in the messages reveals six dominant themes in the messages to the rulemakers:

  • Haves and have nots;
  • Higher costs for consumers;
  • FCC conflict of interest;
  • David vs. Goliath battle between startups and telecommunication companies;
  • Internet is a right/utility; and
  • No free lunch for content providers.

All but one—that there should be no free lunch for content providers—indicate positions in favor of strict protections of net neutrality. The “no free lunch for content providers” message, when analyzed further, shows the comments derived from a single “campaign” that generated templated comments from the public. Other issues also had template responses, but all organic, individually-penned, non-templated public comments supported rules protecting net neutrality.

Compared to population statistics, some states are over- or under-represented in net neutrality comments submitted to the FCC, according to Quid’s analysis. For example, Washington residents sent in twice as many comments as might have been expected from a state of its population. But the state is also home to tech giants Amazon and Microsoft, which might account for greater interest in the issue.

"You're seeing huge kinds of West Coast lean to this with Portland, California and Seattle with the most over represented constituencies," Quid's co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Sean Gourley said, of the data. "The South and Texas are being pretty underrepresented."

Lobbying Spending

Spending on lobbying efforts is “massively skewed,” says Quid’s Gourley. The big players—cable companies that provide Internet services—are doing the most spending. Verizon spent $100 million in 2014 alone. In terms of lobbying dollars spent between 2009 and 2013, Quid found 65 percent of the money spent on the net neutrality issue was spent to lobby against strict enforcement, 30 percent was spent in favor. As a point of comparison, The Sunlight Foundation analysis found that 99 percent of the public comments sent to the FCC on the issue were supportive of maintaining enforcement of net neutrality.

“About two-thirds of the studied comments called for reclassifying broadband providers under Title II of the Communications Act—a move that would allow the FCC to regulate ISPs more heavily but would likely provoke a strong political backlash,” The Washington Post’s Brian Fung wrote, of the Sunlight analysis.

Public Engagement Challenges

The very fact more than 3 million people cared about the open Internet to write into the FCC about it indicates it is important in a way that was not important just a few years ago, when the same body was similarly debating net neutrality. But the challenge is how to message and “market” complicated Internet governance issues to an even wider public—how to make the issues simple enough to understand without losing its inherent complexities.

“There’s a need for inclusive messaging that resonates. People need to understand the impact of how a more closed Internet would affect health care, or jobs,” Harper Reed said. “Tech may be cool, but it’s not that inclusive….When people talk about digital equity, [we need to] bring about messaging that can create honest dialogue and debate.”

The other big challenge going forward is how to get the public to engage more constructively with government such that the engagement is beneficial to both sides. As things are now, the commenting system is largely one-way communication that many rulemakers tend to ignore if it comes in the form of “templated” messages, or those that seem to follow a general text that advocacy groups encouraged people to follow. “Cut and paste doesn’t work,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “It doesn’t have the same impact on an elected [official] as someone writing three sentences that they personally wrote.”

The counterpoint, of course, is that even though more than half the comments to the FCC were form letters pre-written by advocacy campaigns, it says something that the side opposing stronger net neutrality provisions wasn’t able to get more than a handful of people to simply click to support its position.

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