FCC Web Comments = Non-Random, Non-Credible Poll Results?

by Mike Wendy on June 9, 2011

If you’re following the AT&T / T-Mobile acquisition, you may have come across this mass e-mail campaign, staged by the radical group, Free Press:

You can submit the language below or, preferably, answer in your own words.

Your Comment to the FCC:

AT&T’s takeover of T-Mobile would stifle choice and innovation in the market, harm consumers, and lead to higher prices and fewer jobs nationwide. Don’t let AT&T put our mobile future at risk. Please stand with me and reject such reckless consolidation of the mobile industry.

Web campaigns such as this have been common for more than a decade.  They usually involve an “action alert” calling for something, which is mass e-mailed from an organization to its members.  Members are asked to “OK” an automated text message, which then gets sent to an identified group of legislators or policymakers.

I have used such campaigns in the past, but have always considered them poor substitutes for direct, grassroots contacts with legislators and policymakers.  They’re an Internet shortcut for that, relying on “throw weight” – essentially numbers – to make a point. When it comes down to it, however, the offices that receive the text message campaigns don’t make much of them.  In fact, more often than not, they’re simply blocked by SPAM filters and then chucked into the e-garbage.

What’s different about Free Press’ campaign is where the e-mails are going, and how they’ll be used – that is, they’re going to FCC, and will likely get “considered” by the agency as it deliberates the pending AT&T / T-Mobile acquisition.  You see, it’s only been recently – over the past year or so – that the FCC has opened up its process, taking web-based comments on issues that sit before them.

In the past, the bulk of comments on pending FCC rulemakings have come from those with direct interests in the matter at hand.  They follow a standard, “formal” format, and are dense and filled with case law and footnotes to support the underlying arguments presented to the Commission.

With the rise of the web, however, the FCC has started to rely more on web-based comments.  These tend to be informal, or simple letters or statements made by “average citizens.”  Thus far in the AT&T / T-Mobile acquisition, more than 30,000 such comments (many from web campaigns such as Free Press’) have been collected by the FCC.

Though I think it’s good that the FCC has begun using the web to “open up” its decision making processes, I am troubled by the fact that posting web comments is a system that can be easily gamed.  All it takes is a well-organized group with a large membership base like Free Press to automate comment submissions, and then through the quick accumulation of comments, you have an idea– i.e., “Consumers overwhelmingly say X, Y, Z on…” – become “truth,” amplified by “horse-race” press reports, Google searches and blogs.

We are told by the FCC that it takes web comments seriously.  How much so, who knows? In its recent Open Internet Order at footnote 501, p. 97, the Commission proclaims:

“This Appendix lists major commenters and the short forms by which they are cited in the Order. The Commission also received tens of thousands of brief comments in this proceeding, which are not listed here but which were considered.” (Emphasis added)

The agency does not tell us how all the comments were weighted, but they thought it important enough to note at paragraph 2 of the Order that “100,000 commenters have provided written input.” Most of these comments were collected via the web.  By pushing that number out, the FCC is telling us that those comments have more than de minimis weight.  In other words, they affected the decision making process.

Groups like MoveOn and Free Press have mastered the use of web campaigns to ignite activism.  I do not sense this level of engagement from Right-leaning voices…yet (though the Tea Party may be coming close).  I surmise the FCC knows this, and, at least until that activism gap is closed, it seems comfortable with using the web comments to beef up their data points in justification of new industry rules, like Net Neutrality.  Not surprisingly, the vast majority of web comments taken thus far have stacked up for Progressive-oriented regulation favored by the FCC.

But are the web comments “real” data?  Or, are they simply a marketing campaign dressed up as “public outrage”?

As Free State Foundation’s Randy May tells us, for the AT&T / T-Mobile acquisition, “thousands of identical, or nearly identical, three or four sentence comments have flooded the FCC’s electronic docket,” raising legitimate questions about “the role these mass campaign web-generated comments should play in the FCC’s deliberative process…”

Apart from the potential to game of the system, the concern for me is that the web comments collected by the FCC are really no better than self-selected, non-random polls.  And, as the New York Times outlines in its 2011 poll reporting policy, such polls are inherently untrustworthy, stating:

Self-selected or “opt-in” samples — including Internet, e-mail, fax, call-in, street intercept, and non-probability mail-in samples — do not meet The Times’s standards regardless of the number of people who participate.

Most Internet surveys are based on panels of self-selected respondents. This makes Internet polls problematic. Often the polls have no way of controlling the number of times a person participates.  In addition, Internet access is not yet sufficiently widespread or evenly distributed across socio-economic and demographic groups…

…In order to be worthy of publication in The Times, a survey must be representative, that is, based on a random sample of respondents.

Any survey that relies on the ability and/or availability of respondents to access the Web and choose whether to participate is not representative and therefore not reliable.  The hallmark of any good poll is that the poll taker chooses and pursues the respondent.

Quite frankly, the only thing the FCC’s web comments tell me is…well, MoveOn and Free Press got busy, stirring up their angry, anti-corporate base.

More to the point – if the technique isn’t credible, then any assumptions built on that can’t be either. Consequently, web submissions, though part of the “open government” movement, should be taken with a grain of salt. Sure, the comments of thousands of “average citizens” look impressive for news headlines and blogs. But looks can be deceiving.  When you peer into the numbers, one often finds “truths” peddled by well-organized special interests with agendas, and nothing more.

These “truths” do not deserve uncritical acceptance by the FCC.  If they’re not good enough for the New York Times, then expert agencies like the FCC might do well to put them off limits, too.



Fred Goodwin June 10, 2011 at 4:02 am

I have mixed feelings about this post. I think public participation in government is great, but I hope the FCC staff recognize these “astro-turf” campaigns for what they are.

I believe by law, the FCC must “consider” all comments, but the law doesn’t say how much weight they must give to 5,000 copies of the exact same message.

rwellian June 13, 2011 at 5:03 am

Free press isn’t an astroturf organization. They run on a very limited budgets wihoit the help of people like the Koch brothers who fund much of the tea party. Also the comments aren’t supposed to be a random poll so the Times quote is meaningless.

Brett Glass July 25, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Here’s a data point for consideration. Scanning the list of people who had filed boilerplate comments in an FCC proceeding, I found the name of a customer of my company. I called the customer and asked him, “Do you know that you filed a comment advocating policy that would favor a large corporation at the expense of my small business? One that could possibly prevent me from providing service to you in the future or dramatically increase the cost of service?”

His response: “I only vaguely remember that. I filled it out as an automatic response to a mass mailing. I trusted the group that sent the mailing and did not understand the issue.”

I suspect that the majority of “commenters” who file boilerplate comments have similar stories to tell.

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