Mob-Driven Internet Policy

The Internet is good at organizing mobs. Entire organizations – such as Anonymous – specialize in mob attacks on viewpoints with which they disagree. The Wikipedia page on the attacks Anonymous has organized is breathtaking, recounting more than 100 attacks over ten years.

Political activists and companies with regulatory problems have noticed the ease with which Internet-enabled sociopaths turn up the heat on their targets. Internet companies as small as Bird and as large as Google and Facebook crowd-source lobbying these days in order to influence regulators and elected officials.

Most of the Internet companies you’ve heard of have employed these tactics, and they’re parts of most political campaigns as well. The campaigns typically consist of robo-calling legislators and filing form letters with regulators. This has come to be known as user lobbying or brobilizing; it’s really just a form of intimidation.

Fooling the Easily Fooled

Crowd-sourced lobbying is simply a thinly-veiled form of corporate influence. It’s so obviously easy to do and insubstantial that it’s a wonder anyone falls for it.

Do regulators in the US really care what Europeans think about the work they do? Do elected officials in, say, Kansas really care about form letter comments from San Francisco hipsters? Apparently some do, or these campaigns would not continue.

I suspect that few are actually fooled by these campaigns. Their most likely effect is to provide support for positions our officials have already decided to accept for other reasons. They might believe things like Title II regulation of broadband Internet services is genuinely good, and they could be responding to donor wishes.

There’s little doubt that most consequential regulatory decisions have commercial impact. In the case of Title II, the commercial issue is whether consumers pay for high volumes of bandwidth on their ISP bills or on their Netflix bills. This doesn’t matter much to consumers, but it’s a big deal to Netflix.

When Does a Lobbying Campaign Become an Attack?

When the FCC chairman and commissioners testify before the Senate Commerce Committee tomorrow, I expect Democrats will make a lot of points and ask a lot of questions about the John Oliver attacks I wrote about last week. A lawyer in the FCC’s Inspector General’s office says the Chairman made false statements to Congress about these attacks so the minority will be out for blood.

This comes down to a question of semantics. Oliver organized an attack/form letter campaign; his plea went viral, and many form letters were filed with the Commission on the topic of Title II as Oliver ordered. The limits of FCC authority – the central issue – went unaddressed.

The vast majority of these comments – like 99.999% – were not on point, and the volume was so high that the FCC’s servers couldn’t handle the load. Even worse, the FCC was required to read all of them, an utter waste of time.

I believe deliberately wasting the Commission’s time and computer resources is an attack.

Subverting the Public Comment Process

The public comment process is designed to allow people with knowledge to share their insights with regulators. Cancer researchers who’ve done work on weed killers share their research with the EPA to guide the agency toward good regulatory decisions. Allegations of conspiracy from the general public are less beneficial.

Comedy fans filing comments with the FCC to the effect that John Oliver made them angry doesn’t have much value. All it really says is that they’re emotional, easily led, and poorly informed. This insight may motivate the agency to improve its communication with the public, but it should not affect its decision making.

These comments – whether they come from bots or from real people with a hate on for an imaginary bogey man – should not the regarded as legitimate contributions to the regulatory process. The comments that deserve consideration are well reasoned, fact-based, and responsive to the questions asked in the agency’s NPRM.

The Theatrical Appeal of Public Sentiment

Every minute spent discussing form letters and manipulated expressions of emotion is a minute when regulators and their overseers are not doing their jobs. The FCC is not an elected body and its job is not to cater to sentiment.

The only way to read the millions of junk comments is to regard them as statements that some segment of the public cares enough about the Internet to spend ten to 15 seconds of its time urging the Commission to do the right thing. But the Commission already knows this; this is why broadband Internet regulation has been an issue for twenty years.

So thanks, John Oliver and audience, for telling the FCC something it already knew. The question is whether any of you has offered a legitimate path toward addressing your concerns. On this point, you’ve failed.

The Actual Issues are Hard

If broadband Internet regulation were as easy as the comedians and their fans wish it to be, all of these issues would have been settled long ago. Net neutrality is an enormous resource sink for the FCC that prevents the agency from addressing other, more important issues.

All of us who’ve been working on it for past two decades know this, which is why so many policy wonks who used to engage it have moved on to other issues. These folks have been replaced by newbies with very little sense of the background and history.

So we revisit the same points over and over to bring the new activists up to speed. This is especially true now that state legislators with no background in Internet or telecom issues are making the same mistakes and falling into the same traps that we saw in DC in the early parts of the century.

The Sweet Spot

The FCC needs to find the regulatory sweet spot where ISPs are motivated to continually improve service and reduce prices but are prevented from stifling innovation and extracting monopoly rents from huge companies such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix. Angry messages from enraged television viewers don’t show the Commission the way to nirvana.

The Obama FCC admitted that it could not find the sweet spot. In the 2015 Open Internet Order, former Chairman Wheeler simply claimed regulatory authority to sanction firms for behaviors he could not anticipate. Rather than creating bright line rules, Wheeler raised his voice and issued threats.

Angry threats have subsequently become the preferred way to regulate not only the Internet but its regulators as well. This is not productive, but it’s the road chosen by many. I expect three or four members of the Senate Commerce Committee will harangue the chairman and commissioners tomorrow just to show their constituents they share their feelings.

You can take it for granted that these members are not looking for thoughtful dialog. They are victims of “brobilizing” who simply need more understanding.