If you're in favour of a neutral internet — one that's doled out equally to everyone, not preferentially to whomever pays the toll — you have a few more hours to do something about it. At least, to do something about it the official way, by submitting a comment to the FCC urging the agency not to overturn net neutrality. Here's how to yell so that your voice gets heard.
Maybe you're even one of the nearly two million people who've already contacted the FCC. Good for you! The agency was inundated with a record number of comments, partly thanks to last week's somewhat listless Internet Slowdown protest. The question now is: Was it worth a damn? So you clicked on a banner and typed in your zip code — will your action influence the agency's decision? Will the FCC take your comment into consideration?
Just the facts
The answer, of course, is that it depends. While advocacy groups hailed the campaign as a resounding success because so many comments!, the reality is more nuanced. The public comment period — one of the fews ways for individuals to participate in the rulemaking process — doesn't work like a vote. Not all are comments are created equal. Quality, not quantity, talks here. So if you haven't given the government your 2 cents yet, here's how to make it count.
A federal agency is far more likely (legally required, actually) to consider feedback that's based on facts, and arguments that are backed up with examples from personal experience. In other words, if you own a small web business and can describe how losing net neutrality protection would threaten your bottom line, that comment's going hold a lot more weight than the ones that say things like "stop fucking us" and "I'm sad. :("
Or, for that matter, than the canned form letters thousands signed last week. "Agencies tend to pay less attention to comments that are brief and only state a viewpoint, and even less to comments that are identical," Nina Mendelson, a law professor at the university of Michigan told me. When 3,000 comments come in from a portal or on forms that all say the same thing, she said, "they're not going to pay that single comment 3,000 times as much weight."
E-democracy and clicktivism are often lauded for making it easier than ever for the public to participate in the legislative process. In a way, that's true. But the illusion that with three clicks you "took action" potentially overshadows the unpopular truth: To really influence change, you have to dig a little deeper.
Agencies are much more likely to respond to lengthy, thoughtful, well-researched comments that give a legal, economic, or policy basis for the argument for or against. Comments written by, you know, people that actually read the document they're commenting on. Comments that address the opposition's point of view and offer up a viable alternative solution.
If the FCC straight up ignores significant feedback like this, it's going to have an accountability problem on its hands — especially if the issue winds up in court.
Making it personal
It certainly helps if you're a megacorporation with an army of lawyers to write those kinds of letters. But an agency also can't read the mind of every American with a stake in the proposed rules they're asking for feedback on. Backing up your opinion with real-life examples goes a long way.
"You should speak on behalf of the community you represent," April Glaser from EFF told me. Maybe you're a teacher, a business owner, a student, a journalist, a scientist — every group is going to be effected differently by how the net neutrality debate shakes out. "Give examples of why your story, why your position requires a free internet," she said. "Who knows if you're comment is going to stand out, but these stories are being read."
This isn't groundbreaking advice: Government rulemaking resource sites (because we all spend so much time reading those) clearly outline how to maximise your chance of being heard. "One well-supported comment is often more influential than a thousand form letters," states one of the tips on Regulations.gov. The FCC's website recommends giving "specific" and "real world examples" in your comment for it to be considered.
It also doesn't mean all those letters and calls and emails that have flooded in throughout this net neutrality public comment period are totally worthless. The sheer scope of the response made some noise, and noise is a good thing. It got the attention of several members of Congress, also a very good thing.
And it bolsters the case of advocacy groups like EFF and ACLU, should they wind up suing the FCC for striking down net neutrality when that decision goes against the overwhelming popular opinion. The agency is required to act in the interest of the public, and at the very least, the public record of hundreds of thousands of signatures defending net neutrality is a pretty good sign that it's something the public is interested in.
"If many, many people are writing in and saying the agency is on the wrong track, I think that's a reason at the very least for an agency to listen," said Mendelson. "I think quantity ought to make an agency sit up and take notice ... but historically that hasn't happened very often."
So what now? Well the FCC has said it wants to issue its open internet rules ASAP, but there is a chance that it will come back with a revised proposal and open up the new rules for public comment again. If that happens, you might want to consider making your case beyond the click of a button, and a bit more articulately than "FREEDOM!!!!!"
Picture: Tara Jacoby