When the Federal Communications Commission asked for public comments about the issue of keeping the Internet free and open, the response was huge. So huge, in fact, that the FCC’s platform for receiving comments twice got knocked offline because of high traffic, and the deadline was extended because of technical problems.
So what’s in those nearly 1.1 million public comments? A lot of mentions of the F word, according to a TechCrunch analysis. But now, we have a fuller picture. The San Francisco data analysis firm Quid looked beyond keywords to find the sentiment and arguments in those public comments.
Quid, as commissioned by the media and innovation funder Knight Foundation, parsed hundreds of thousands of comments, tweets and news coverage on the issue since January. The firm looked at where the comments came from and what common arguments emerged from them.
Check out the cluster map that visualizes the emergent themes:
You’ll see here that every emergent theme was “pro” net neutrality, or supports the idea of a level playing field for content on the Internet. The comments did include “anti” net neutrality positions. They included statements opposing the “FCC’s crippling new regulations,” as commenters wrote. But they came from a form letter, or template, and all comment clusters that came from templates (five separate ones in all, four of five supporting net neutrality) were collapsed into a single node.
Taken with the entire body of comments sampled, there weren’t enough unique or organic anti-net-neutrality comments to register on the map.
Templates are not unusual. As we’ve reported previously, when the public is asked to comment on policy, citizens often engage by sending in a templated or form letter that advocates for a certain position help them create. The Quid analysis shows about half the comments received by the FCC were “derived from templates.” That’s actually low compared to analyses of other rule-making — upwards of 80 percent of comments on financial regulation were templates.
While the research showed several themes matched the talking points in the debate advocated in the press, the two more surprising emerging arguments were not outflows of advocacy group talking points or news media. They had to do with how the Internet affirms American principles.
One cluster focused on preserving net neutrality to maintain a diversity of opinion. Commenters argued that biasing faster traffic to the content providers that can pay for it removes a set of voices that should have a fair shake in sharing content. “It’s the idea that America is America because you can connect to different opinions,” Quid’s Sean Gourley says.
The related but separate cluster of arguments had to do with the American dream. Commenters believe America should be a meritocracy, and that everyone should be able to compete equally with everyone else. Not preserving net neutrality, commenters argue, tilts the playing field away from everyone and toward firms in special positions of power.
A comment from Annette Almonte of Atlanta put it this way:
“I’ve always seen this country as ‘the land of opportunity’—this is what made me move to this place and eventually become an official citizen. I would hate to see many people’s opportunities and dreams to disappear simply because of there not being any net neutrality…”
Both arguments frame the threats to net neutrality as “attacks on the very nature of what it means to be American,” Gourley says. Unlocking the data in the comments — using technology to show relationships between them and high occurrences of them — helped amplify some arguments that otherwise weren’t getting much play.