Anti-Net Neutrality Lobbyists Did Not Dominate the FCC's Comment Process

Inaccurate data leads to inaccurate data analysis.

|
Dec 18 2014, 12:00pm

It's a metaphor for the mess this has become. ​Image: ​RustyClark/Flickr

​The pro-net neutrality movement is still winning the battle for public opinion regarding internet equality, despite what you may have heard.

A recent analysis of the millio​ns of comments received by the Federal Communications Commission during its second comment period regarding the future of net neutrality indicated a striking shift in public opinion: The anti-net neutrality crowd is winning, if the report is to be believed. Thankfully, it's not.

​Like it did the first time around, the Sunlight Foundation analyzed the FCC's raw data culled from the millions of comments it received about net neutrality. That analysis showed that, while the first comment period was dominate​d by pro-net neutrality commenters, the second comment period was ruled by anti-net neutrality submissions from a conservative astrotu​rf group with ties to the Koch brothers known as American C​ommitment.

But did anti-net neutrality commenters really rally in force around their cause and overwhelm internet equality activists with a 60 percent majority, as the Sunlight Foundation's report concludes? Nope.

The diagram on the left represents Sunlight's analysis of the first round of comments, with the vast majority supporting net neutrality (green). The diagram on the right represents the second analysis, with the red circles mostly indicating American Commitment's submitted comments. Image: Sunlight Foundation

American Commitment is quite shady—​it won't say who its backers or donors are. In fact, its apparent success is due almost entirely to paid advertisements, conservative email list spamming, and grossly out-of-whack rhetoric used to drum up a convincing facsimile of support.

Moreover, it turns out that the FCC's raw data was garbage. In an email sent today to Fight for the Future (a staunchly pro-net neutrality organization that helped organize the pro-net neutrality movement), the FCC admitted as much.

According to Erik Schiebert of the FCC, a phrase specific to Fight for the Future's boilerplate comment submission was found in the comment files 526,657 times, but only came up in the XML reports the agency released to the Sunlight Foundation 281,776 times.

An email sent from the FCC to Fight for the Future. Image: Fight for the Future

In other words, roughly 250,000 pro-net neutrality comments went uncounted by Sunlight. Meanwhile, the organization says that all of the comments submitted by American Commitment were readable and analyzed.

Because all of American Commitment's comments were readable by the algorithm Sunlight used, and not all pro-net neutrality comments were readable, the data is skewed beyond usability, Fight for the Future claims. 

And Fight for the Future may have a point.

According to the Sunlight report, if American Commitment's comments are filtered out of the data, the results indicate a resounding win for the pro-net neutrality movement.

"With their comments excluded, the corpus would have looked quite a bit like the first round:

  • About 728,000 total comments (vs. about 800,000 in round one)
  • 75% of comments would have been form letters (compared to about 60% from the first round)
  • About 4% of comments would have opposed net neutrality, only a slight increase from the first comment round"

In ​a blog posted last night, the Sunlight Foundation admitted that "there's a major discrepancy between the numbers of comments the FCC reported receiving and the number we actually found in files they released to the public." 

"The conservative group that appears to have generated the vast majority of comments in the second set of comments we analyzed said we confirmed it 'won' the comment period. In fact, as we were careful to point out in both our first and second post, these numbers cannot be read the same way as a baseball score," the group added. "That's partly because of data noise (more on that below) and partly because of the way those numbers were generated, both factors which we went to some pains to elucidate in our post."

An email sent by Motherboard to the Sunlight Foundation seeking further clarification was not returned, but we'll update this article if we hear back.

Fight for the Future wants the FCC and the Sunlight Foundation to correct its report with accurate numbers. With the future of the internet at stake, hearing everybody's voice is vital. Well, it would be, if not for the fact that ​every form letter is just going to be tossed in the trash by the FCC.