At Least 60% of FCC Net Neutrality Comments Robo-Filings Says New Study

by Mike Wendy on September 3, 2014

Progressive-oriented Sunlight Foundation came out with a deep-dive of the approximately one million Net Neutrality rulemaking comments sent to the FCC in July. In its new study, Sunlight asks: “What can we learn from 800,00 public comments on the FCC’s net neutrality plan?”

Well, of the 800,000 comments it examined, Sunlight estimates that fewer than 600 came from “experts” / or those who actually penned comments longer than 200 words.

Perhaps more interesting, Sunlight also found that at least 60% of all the comments they looked at came from just 20 letter writing campaigns and their pre-formatted letters. These “filings,” which all pretty much repeat the same pro-Net Neutrality memes, are essentially blackbox, e-mailed robo-comments. Nice sounding groups like Free Press, Public Knowledge and EFF (which, not surprisingly, also take funding from many of the same pro-Net Neutrality funders as Sunlight does) directed the “grassroots” campaigns, and were largely responsible for placing the robo-comments at the FCC in the rulemaking.

Since the mid-2000’s, this blunt force tactic has been a tool of the Left to show “real consensus” has emerged on any given public policy matter.   I’ve long been skeptical about robo-comments, and have written about this in the past – that is, the FCC’s porous comment-taking process, which “considers” all comments it gets in some manner, but which is also ripe for gaming.

As I noted three years ago (here):

“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…

The tactic is designed to deceive, not illuminate. And, in that same blog post three years ago, I posited this:

“…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.”

To be sure, the FCC can’t control the comments sent to it. Still, it has a duty to maintain the integrity of its decision-making by ensuring its processes are fair, open and transparent. The FCC would do well to break out its salt-shaker, helping all understand the real probative value of robo-comments in the rulemaking process (whatever that value is, or isn’t).

Will that happen, especially when the robo-comments seemingly “justify” the FCC’s own plans for “real” Net Neutrality?

It must. An independent, expert agency like the FCC should be guided by the experts, not by tainted comments written with dark-money. The public interest, and the creation of sound public policy, deserve no less.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Fred Goodwin September 3, 2014 at 7:12 pm

“The substantial-evidence standard has never been taken to mean that an agency rule-making is a democratic process by which the majority of commenters prevail by sheer weight of numbers. Regardless of majority sentiment within the community of commenters, the issue is whether the rules are supported by substantial evidence in the record. The number and length of comments, without more, is not germane to a court’s substantial-evidence inquiry.”

Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency
http://elr.info/sites/default/files/litigation/17.21043.htm

Reply

Mike Wendy September 4, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Agreed, Fred.

Reply

Fred Goodwin September 4, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Spamming the FCC and other federal agencies is certainly a problem.

I noticed it during the 2010 Net Neutrality rulemaking. But I’m not sure what the FCC can do about it, without abridging a citizen’s First Amendment rights. Whether the entire text of War and Peace, or the contents of a Maytag washer manual, some idiots will always abuse the system.

It’s the price we must pay for “openness” and “inclusiveness”.

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