The public debate over net neutrality isn't much of a debate, if the 1.1 million public comments on the Federal Communication Commission's proposed "open internet" rules are any guide. Wading through more than a million comments — the second-most the FCC has ever received on an issue, after the 1.4 million comments about Janet Jackson's 2004 wardrobe malfunction — is a daunting task. How do you make sense of that much data?
The Knight Foundation commissioned data visualization and analysis firm Quid to dig into the public comments and sift out common themes. Quid looked at a sample of 250,000 comments, then created this cluster map, shared via NPR's All Tech Considered:
(Quid, via NPR)
More than 30 percent of the comments were from letters or templates, primarily from five major advocacy groups — four in favor of net neutrality, one opposed — and Quid collapsed each template into one comment. The largest cluster of comments (15 percent) focused on how a pay-to-play system — proponents call it a fast-lane for web services willing to pay and a regular lane for everybody else — would harm the diversity of the internet.
But "taken with the entire body of comments sampled, there weren't enough unique or organic anti-net-neutrality comments to register on the map," explains NPR's Elise Hu.
The FCC's commenters are obviously a self-selected sample, and Quid also looked into their demographics. So, who are they? Men, mostly: Only 29 percent of the comments Quid studied appeared to be from women. And certain areas of the country were more prone to comment, as Quid shows in this map:
Historically, though, public comments don't have much impact on FCC rule-making, George Washington University law professor Richard Pierce told NPR in July. Data-rich input from industry sources is much more influential, he said, but there is a good way for the FCC commissioners to gauge the temperature of the country: "Take a look at things like public opinion polls," he said. "A public opinion poll is a far more reliable indicator of what the public thinks about an issue like net neutrality than a bunch of postcards or one-liners."