Fixing the traffic jam along the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System means doing more than just changing the GUI.
The other day I participated in an FCC webinar which outlined new changes to the Agency’s beleaguered Electronic Comment Filing System. You may know that the system, which collects comments from stakeholders and the public on various proceedings before the FCC, has come under increased scrutiny of late due to its shutting down and / or its inability to quickly process filings at critical points during some important policy deliberations.
Heralding the soon-to-be new system was a blog post from the FCC’s CIO, which had this line:
“…we have spent months engaging with external stakeholders from law firms, industry and public interest groups, the press and FCC staff to solicit their feedback on the new system…”
Who knew (it’s about time)?
You see, during one of those comment shut downs, the FCC reportedly worked with Left-of-Center activists to get their comments on board and counted, basically ignoring Right-of-Center groups and about one million of their comments which faced a similar challenge. The result of the FCC’s unusual collaboration was a purposeful kiting of the numbers – a powerful PR datapoint – which was used to further “prove” the veracity of the activists’ and FCC’s pro-Net Neutrality cause.
If the FCC was working with the public to fix its ragged system, and, importantly, the potential for gaming it, I’d want to be part of that. So, I inquired over to the FCC about the CIO’s “engagement” statement because this was the first I had heard about it.
The FCC spokesperson got back to me with this quote:
“FCC staff invited a large and diverse group of external stakeholders to attend webinars and demonstrations of the prototype of the new ECFS system over the past several months. This group includes recommendations from the members of the FCC’s advisory committees and include industry associations, law firms, non-profits, companies and consumer groups. Since the beginning of the process of modernizing ECFS, the public has been invited to provide feedback and attend webinars to learn more about the new system as it was being updated. All stakeholders and members of the public are invited to attend scheduled demonstrations of the new system to be held this month. After the switch-over to the new system later this month, the FCC will continue to make improvements based on public feedback.”
If I wanted to know exactly who the FCC contacted, I was told I could easily FOIA those lists. (Yeah, “easily.”)
Internally, I asked if anyone in our market-based listserve (which is comprehensive) had received such outreach or an invite. None had. Notably, two prominent figures who bore the brunt of the aforementioned ECFS shutdowns told me they hadn’t heard boo from the FCC on improving the system. It seems some outreach could have / should have gone there, eh?
(“Blindspots” like this only confirm the belief that the Commission has it out for the small government crowd. But I digress.)
Sure, the new system looks and works better than the old one. But, at a top level, the underlying process issues don’t appear to be addressed.
For practitioners, we know who we are. We’re from firms, companies or orgs. Any FCC official can get on the horn and see if our comments are real, and what they are about. That keeps our stuff in check. But, as in the case of the four million (wrongly-called pro) Net Neutrality commenters – the agency doesn’t, can’t, and won’t verify that. Their IP addresses aren’t kept. We don’t know if they’re even American. Quite frankly, there’s no way of knowing if they’re real, or if they’re an algorithm from some black box in San Jose, or Jakarta, or Johannesburg, etc. Yet they get “considered” by the Commission and are often used to bolster the Agency’s case. This disenfranchises real voices and their concerns.
I think the agency wants to keep it that way because, well, it works for it (at least this Commission). But that ain’t right.
When I questioned the FCC official giving the webinar how the Commission prevents against fraud – basically the answer was that the system wasn’t really built for that mission. Its primary value is ease of use for commenters. The obvious stuff – like one million comments coming in through a single IP address – that can get “dealt with” (whatever that means). Beyond that…next question, please.
In a time of digital activism, e-grassroots tools are very sophisticated and can (and likely have) gamed the system. I don’t get a sense from the Commission that there are adequate checks to ensure this does not happen, or is minimized, or is “weighted” in some manner when it occurs. Digital ghosts crowding out real people is a racket, not due process. Putting Band-Aids on the ECFS does nothing to change that.
The Commission must work to ensure that real voices with real concerns are presented before it via the ECFS and elsewhere. Willful blindness to faux / special interest, digital spin perverts policy and harms the public interest.