The latest comment period on the effort to kill off America's net neutrality rules has closed – and the circus has officially reopened for business.
A staggering 21.8 million missives have been sent to FCC on the subject – a number so large that it has pretty much allowed anyone and everyone to claim that their point of view is the one most strongly represented.
But one company has attempted to do a full analysis. Unfortunately that analysis was funded by Broadband for America – a cable industry lobbying group – so any results from the consulting firm in question, Emprata, are going to come under considerable scrutiny.
That said, there is some serious analysis in its subsequent report [PDF] – as evidenced by the fact that it pretty much says the opposite of what the cable industry wants to hear – and it has done a pretty thorough job digging into the comments, what they were arguing for, and where they came from.
In every measure except one, there was a clear majority of people opposing the FCC's plan.
Of the 21.766 million comments, 60 per cent were against repealing the legal classification (so-called Title II) that defines internet access as a form of utility, rather than a service, and underpins the net neutrality rules.
However, the paper says that if you remove "duplicative comments" and comments from email addresses that "appear to be illegitimate," then "general sentiment favors repeal."
Of course the question then is what the company considers "duplicative." Fortunately, it reveals its methodology: it only accepted the first comment from a physical address or email address.
No simple answer
That may appear to be a solid approach, but it also ignores reality: many people submit legitimate concerns through websites that offer to simplify the process and allow you to make your views known very simply – sometimes with the click of a button or sometimes after you provide your name and email address.
Unless and until the federal government is willing to provide guidelines on what it will and will not accept as a legitimate comment from a citizen in response to a public comment process, it is going to be impossible to make sense of these vast responses.
Assuming a legitimate case – where a website requires a commenter to provide their name and email address before sending a comment on their behalf – Emprata's methodology would still discount any comments but the first, since they would all come from the same email address.
That is clearly not a sustainable position, but at the same time, unless you dig into each individual form-letter website and ascertain how legitimate each source is, it is an understandable approach for trying to make sense of what is really happening.
The majority of comments were in fact form letters – 89.8 per cent of those against repeal and a staggering 99.6 per cent of those for repeal – were not sent from an individual's email account.
Clearly there has been widespread ballot stuffing on both sides; the hard part is trying to figure out what is legit and what is not. In an effort to avoid having comments discarded for coming from a single address, some form-letter site decided to generate email address.
The study found that millions of comments were generated from email addresses that derived from FakeMailGenerator.com. Despite that service's name, it is in fact possible to send – and receive, and view – emails from that address. Again, the technique could be used both to generate huge numbers of fake comments, and to allow people to send comments very easily without the risk of being discounted.
In any case, of the 7.88 million comments sent through this method, 61 per cent were actually for repeal and 38 per cent were against.
So what about the clearly legit comments sent in the normal way we all send email: using our personal account and writing an email in our own words?
In that case, the vast majority were against the FCC's plans to repeal net neutrality: 1.52 million against just 23,000 that agree with the plan. That's 98.5 per cent against the FCC's plans.
Overall it is clear that public comment process has said, fairly loudly, that people are not in favor of the plan to repeal Title II. There is a clear argument to be had, however, that the federal government should come up with some rules and guidelines to make future public comment processes less chaotic and more representative.
Not that it matters in the alternate-fact universe that the US currently inhabits.
Marsh argues that defenders of the current rules have embarked on a massive misinformation campaign and "badly misled the public about what is at stake in this proceeding."
She argues that "nothing in the history of broadband remotely suggests that Title II regulation is necessary to ensure an open internet" – aside from "a tiny number of alleged 'incidents' ... all of them were fully addressed without Title II."