The Sunlight Foundation has just wrapped its weeks-long study of the more than 1 million initial comments filed to federal regulators on net neutrality. The top-line results are unsurprising, with less than 1 percent of 800,000 commenters calling for Internet providers to be regulated more lightly. That's consistent with a major push by consumer advocates to convince FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to adopt stronger rules on ISPs.
The study, published in a blog post Tuesday, comes with some important caveats. Out of the 1.1 million comments the FCC said it received, Sunlight was only able to process 800,000 because some comments were mailed in to the agency and weren't available online when Sunlight began looking at the comments. Others came bundled together in packs that Sunlight had to break apart to make sense of.
Despite the incomplete analysis, the research is the most credible one we've seen to date and shows an overwhelming bias toward stronger regulation. About two-thirds of the studied comments called for reclassifying broadband providers under Title II of the Communications Act — a move that would allow the FCC to regulate ISPs more heavily but would likely provoke a strong political backlash.
The study sheds crucial new light on other important questions raised by the FCC in its proposed net neutrality rules, such as whether the policy should be applied to wireless carriers or the middle-mile of the Web, where companies send traffic to one another over the backbone. Even though these are slightly more esoteric issues, both promise to change the economics of the Web at a basic level. According to Jenn Topper, a Sunlight Foundation spokeswoman, the comments contained just 2,300 mentions of the wireless issue and 300 mentions of interconnection.
Another interesting finding: Some 60 percent of comments came in the form of letters pre-written by advocacy campaigns. This suggests a heavy role for "clicktivists," or members of the public who weighed in by doing nothing more than clicking a button in an e-mail or on a Web site.
Should this type of engagement count for anything? Here's one way of looking at it: If you took out all the form letters, you'd wind up with around half a million comments that people cared enough to write themselves. That's nowhere near the staggering 1.1 million figure reported by the FCC, and it could conceivably change the debate in a measurable way. Skeptics worry that clicktivism cheapens the business of civics; when the barrier to entry is so low, numbers alone fail to capture the strength of public opinion with any degree of accuracy.
But here's the case for clicktivism: The act of participation matters more than the reasons behind it. We have bigger problems on our hands if the only vote that counts is the one you feel strongly about. We would never force people to invalidate their votes for political candidates they weren't experts on. Why would we apply that standard to online politics?
The risk with this approach, of course, is that it turns politics into a battle over which issue advocacy organizations are better at nudging their followers into clicking on things. Then again, the fact that nobody got more than a handful of people to click on things supporting the other side says something in itself about net neutrality.