As the Trump administration prepares to scrap the U.S. government’s net neutrality rules, it has undeniably heard an earful from web users who believe that AT&T, Comcast* and other telecom giants should be required to treat all online traffic equally.
Yet more than 90 percent of the record-breaking 21 million comments received by the Federal Communications Commission — from both sides of the debate — are essentially pre-written form letters, while millions are otherwise suspicious in origin, according to a new report released Tuesday.
The study comes from the firm Emprata LLC, underwritten by Broadband for America, a lobbying group for the telecom industry — but the firm told Recode that its backers didn’t touch the data, conclusions or methodology. Overall, though, the analysis acknowledges that “general sentiment is against” repeal of the government’s current open internet rules, as the FCC’s Republican leader, Chairman Ajit Pai, recently has proposed to do.
Doubtlessly, the findings are sure to stir new controversy on Wednesday, just as the window for comments closes at the FCC. That’s because Pai, in the end, must justify his plans for net neutrality based on the submissions he receives — and he has already made clear that there’s no “numerical threshold” that might guide his next move. Still, the record itself is impossible to parse, given that net neutrality supporters and opponents alike have tried to juice the system with comments that advance their cause.
Start with the 21 million total comments in the agency’s possession. After a sentiment analysis, the FCC received about 13 million comments that support the current net neutrality protections, according to the Emprata report, and it received about 8.6 million comments in support of Pai’s push for repeal. The firm studied data received by the FCC until Aug. 22.
But broad swaths of those comments are “form letters,” the firm found. Those are pre-written comments drafted by groups on both sides of the debate, including Fight for the Future, Demand Progress and Free Press, three liberal-leaning groups that rallied web users in defense of net neutrality this summer.
Once the form letters drafted by supporters and opponents are removed, the FCC more likely received about 1.7 million unique comments defending net neutrality rules, and about 24,000 unique comments backing Pai’s push to scrap them.
In the eyes of net neutrality advocates, that might be something of a win. To be sure, these groups take great offense to the “form letter” label, arguing that it’s perfectly reasonable for web users to click a button and send a petition to their regulators — as millions seem to have done. Even if these comments are subtracted from the total, however, the data shows that Pai’s plan might be more popular with internet providers than with the masses.
But telecom giants and others who have long lobbied against the U.S. government’s utility-like regulation are sure to seize other findings in the Emprata report.
For one thing, the firm found that many of the emails tied to pro-net-neutrality comments have domains associated with FakeMailGenerator.com, essentially a site for disposable addresses (allegedly to avoid spam). Other email addresses on pro-net-neutrality comments appear multiple times in the FCC’s docket, inflating the total, while some physical addresses are irregular or incomplete.
Taking into account only completely filled-out unique home and email addresses, Emprata found it’s initial conclusion flipped: There is actually more support for Pai’s repeal than preserving the Obama-era net neutrality rules.
But that, too, only tells some of the story.
Recall the controversy earlier this year, after ZDNet found conservative-leaning comments submitted on behalf of people who said they never actually wrote the FCC about net neutrality. At the time, the Center for Individual Freedom, which drafted the comment text in question, denied that it had used bots or other tactics to scrape websites in an attempt to fake out the FCC.
Nonetheless, the CFIF-authored text accounted for about 818,000 comments received by the FCC, according to the Emprata study. And the company’s chief executive, Paul Salasznyk, said the methods behind that submission — potentially, scraping — are something his firm simply could not determine, given the state of the FCC’s records.
To that end, Emprata has one conclusion that might unite both sides of a fractious, vicious, never-ending net neutrality debate: A paucity of decent data.
“As a result, it is very difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from the comments found in the docket,” the firm found. “Any conclusions that one might draw from the data would be based on the subset of data that they considered to be ‘real.’”
* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.