Form letters go right into the digital trash bin.
Wednesday's internet slowdown, a massive protest that encouraged some 777,000 people to write comments defending net neutrality to the Federal Communications Commission, was a huge success, in terms of getting people to actually write to the agency. The only problem, however, is that those comments are almost certainly going directly into the digital trash bin.
Obviously, raising awareness for a hugely important issue is commendable, and getting people to comment to the FCC on net neutrality is a noble goal, but form letters, as we've explored before, are not an effective way to get the FCC to change its mind on much of anything.
Earlier this summer, I spoke with several regulatory law experts about the proceedings, and the general consensus was that this type of clicktivism is not actually effective in changing the hearts and minds of the people who matter.
"In theory, all comments are read and considered. In reality, most are worthless," Richard Pierce, a law professor at George Washington University's law school told me at the time. "Studies of other rulemakings have found that a high proportion of comments—typically 95-98%—are brief statements for or against a proposal from naïve or misinformed citizens. The agency can do nothing with comments of that type."
Form letters are an example of the type of "worthless" comments that Pierce is talking about. The net neutrality ruling is not a vote put to the people. Instead, the comments that actually matter are ones that contained well-reasoned, legally applicable arguments and are often written by lawyers.
In fact, there's precedent for this. From my earlier article:
Nina Mendelson of University of Michigan's law school found that most public comments are acknowledged but not taken into account: "agency officials appear to be discounting these value-laden comments, even when they are numerous."
Back in 2002, the Interior Department received 360,000 comments on a rule that would allow snow mobiles in certain parts of certain national parks. More than four fifths of the comments wanted snowmobiles banned. Instead, the Interior Department allowed even more snowmobiles to operate than were initially proposed.
"It was not a vote," Steve Iobst, an assistant superintendent of Grand Teton National Park told the New York Times at the time. An industry lobbyist told the Times that "these huge hate-mail campaigns are not effective now and won't be in the future."
That doesn't mean this was an empty endeavor, and it doesn't mean that the will of the people means nothing. The Internet Slowdown's organizers were smart to target letters to Congress: More than 2 million emails were sent to lawmakers, and their reasoned arguments certainly hold some weight.
By that measure, then, those 2 million emails certainly generated awareness, and, in recent weeks, there have been some pretty strongly-worded emails coming from powerful members of Congress that support reclassifying the internet as a utility. It also sends a message to lawmakers that this is an issue that their constituents care about. As elected officials, they have to care. Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman, does not.
That's good news for those who support Title II reclassification. There are some, in fact, who would prefer that Congress wrest control of the decision from the FCC (though that seems highly unlikely at this point).
So, yes, the Internet Slowdown was a success, and raising this sort of awareness is important. But if you want to make a real difference in this particular net neutrality ruling, study the issue closely and write a reasoned comment backed with facts, figures, and rational arguments.