“Big data” and “Data visualization” are all very trendy these days. As with all tools, data analysis and data visualization require appropriate context to make sense. As my old mentor Professor Robert Seidman liked to caution: “you generally find the most firetrucks at the biggest fires.” Understanding context tells you cause and effect so that you don’t try to fight fires by eliminating firetrucks.
Which brings me to the analysis of the public comments in the FCC’s ongoing network neutrality proceeding. The FCC has received about 1.1 million comments so far (we can expect more when replies come due in September). To facilitate further discussion and debate, the FCC released these comments in 5 XML Files that make doing searches and analysis much easier. We have started to see some data crunching of this data, with a range of results. As someone with 15 years experience with FCC proceedings, I can put these in some context.
Briefly, the volume of individual comments and the analysis shows a high level of engagement. More importantly, the comments do not simply reflect the talking points we see in the mainstream media and debated in DC policy circles. A lot of people are actually thinking about this issue and deciding why it is important to them personally, and it has nothing to do with cat videos or Netflix. For a lot of people, this debate goes to fundamental values of basic fairness, opportunity, the American Dream, and the preserving free expression and diversity of views.
Perhaps most tellingly, the number of individual comments opposing net neutrality regulations as unnecessary and overly burdensome government regulation of the Internet is so small as to be statistically irrelevant to data visualization analysis. Those people who are engaged on this and care enough to comment all run one way — they want the FCC to adopt rules that prohibit paid prioritization and protect an open Internet.
I unpack this below . . .
So far, I have seen a couple of sets of analysis of the FCC comment data, as well as a bunch of stories about the analysis. Not surprisingly, TechCrunch’s observation that many of the comments expressed rage (including considerable use of the “F-Bomb”) attracted attention. Others have noted that men appear to outnumber women in commenting (why, of course, is unclear). You can see some interesting data about the geographic distribution of the comments (most individual comments are short, the tech heavy state of California is overly represented as a source of comments, etc.) by Minimaxir.com here.
But by far, the most interesting and significant analysis I have seen to date comes from a company called Quid, which was financed to do an analysis by The Knight Foundation. NPR blog covered Quid’s analysis here. Quid separated out individual comments (as opposed to comments from organizations like my employer Public Knowledge, corporations like Verizon, or trade associations) and further distinguished between “unique or organic” comments by individuals and individual comments that appeared to be “derived from a template.”
Taking all this together, I see some very interesting and fascinating things that — as someone with a lot of experience in FCC regulatory proceedings — find very significant. The level of participation by individuals is unusually high, unusually passionate, and unusually independent. The only thing like it I have ever seen is the response to the FCC’s 2003 effort to relax the media ownership rules.
So What Are The Big Trends?
The Individual Comments Skew Almost Entirely In Favor of Having Net Neutrality Rules.
1. There were virtually no individual anti-net neutrality comments. Or, as the study said: “Taken with the entire body of comments sampled, there weren’t enough unique or organic anti-net-neutrality comments to register on the map.”
This is not to say there were no anti-net neutrality comments. But they all came from templates rather than from individuals writing their own comments in their own words. Nor did anti-net neutrality templates outnumber the pro-net neutrality templates.
But the fact that no one who opposed net neutrality regulation cared enough to write their own comments in their own words is a fairly big deal when looking at how energized people are around this issue and in which direction.
The Number of Unique Individual Comments Not Derived From Templates Is Unusually High.
2. The number of comments arising “organically” (written by individuals) as opposed to based on templates is extremely high relative to other regulatory proceedings where individuals comment. The usual number of template-based comments from the public is 80%, according to the NPR blog. Net neutrality, by contrast, 50% of the individual comments are “organically derived” rather than from templates.
This is not a knock on templates, which are used by both pro-net neutrality and anti-net neutrality groups. But these two points taken together tell us a huge amount about the nature of engagement by individuals
People Are Really Thinking About This And Really Engaged With It — More So Than With Other Comparable Regulatory Proceedings.
Points #1 and #2 tell us a lot about the nature of public engagement here. Templates are partly a matter of tribalism. I support/rely on group X to find things for me to care about and I support their efforts. This is valuable and important public input and not to be ignored.
HOWEVER, personal comments, even if they are only 300 words or less, demonstrate a much higher level of engagement. It is like the difference between signing a petition or sending a post card to Congress v. actually picking up the phone and calling your member. Members of Congress understand that there is a substantive difference in the level of engagement based on the effort, even if the substance seems fairly limited.
Which now brings us to the extremely important point #3.
Most Individuals Thinking About This Care About Net Neutrality In Ways Not Addressed By Mainstream Coverage. Specifically, They Care About Net Neutrality As An Expression of Fundamental Values.
3. The biggest clusters of themes that emerged among individuals were the impact on diversity of voices and diversity of views, followed by the importance of fundamental fairness and the “American Dream” of giving upstarts an equal shot. Taken together, these concepts accounted for 31% of the individual comments analyzed.
This is noteworthy because these two themes, while mentioned by some public interest groups (particularly civil rights groups allies, but also PK, FP and others), these themes of diversity and fundamental fairness have not been the dominant messaging points in the news media (although we have seen them in coverage by alternative media). Rather, the general framing in the media, and among policy makers, have been around competition and marketpower issues (as well as Wheeler’s ties to the cable industry and general Washington/corporate corruption). These themes are certainly present as well, but do not predominate nearly as much as one might expect. Tellingly, the single biggest node was the “diversity” node, followed by the equality of access node, followed by the “American Dream” node.
This last point tells us two more important things.
People who are engaged as individuals are actually thinking about this in a substantive way. If opponents of NN were correct that people are worked up over this issue due to misinformation or misunderstanding, then the comments should have mirrored the press framing or the “misinformation” on ISP market power being pushed as the primary argument by corporate allies. The data does not reflect this. People are engaged on this issue to a remarkable degree, and are drawing their own conclusions about it rather than echoing talking points — even talking points from trusted sources.
People associate a set of fundamental values around the Internet. This is not about “Netflix and cat videos.” The themes at play here are different from consumer protection corporate rip offs or even crony capitalism. The Internet is now seen as a fundamental service in society and a critical part of our identity that must reflect our basic values.
In media/FCC terms, this would be a First Amendment/Red Lion argument. In this context, it fits much more with ideas like Chairman Wheeler’s Network Compact.
More broadly, when we look at these sentiments, we see a lot of support for the idea of broadband as a public utility – by which I mean a basic service so essential to participation in modern society that we do not simply leave it to the kindness of kings, the benevolence of corporate barons, or the indifference of the unfettered market. We don’t speak of access to consumer goods or most services as essential to the American Dream and tied into values of fundamental fairness. We reserve that kind of language for a very small number of services like water, electricity and other very basic and fundamental things. That people now add “broadband access” to this short list of services that should reflect our values is quite telling.
Stay tuned . . . .