The Federal Communications Commission said in October that its proposed net neutrality regulations drew a record-breaking 3.9 million comments.
Many people seemed to assume that a good portion of those comments, if not most of them, came from net neutrality supporters. But a large number of commenters actually opposed new restrictions on broadband providers, the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation says in a new report.
The Sunlight Foundation says that while the initial round of comments (submitted before July 18) heavily favored net neutrality regulations, a follow-up round (which lasted from July 19 through Sept. 15) drew a large number of comments opposing neutrality regulations.
What accounts for the shift? The Sunlight Foundation reports that many of the anti-regulation comments were the result of a form-letter initiative by the “shadowy organization” American Commitment -- a group tied to the conservative Koch brothers.
Overall, the Sunlight Foundation found that 41% of the total comments (between May and September) were anti-net neutrality, while the remainder were either in favor of regulations or noncommittal.
But some advocates quickly said that the Sunlight Foundation's methodology is flawed. The group Fight for the Future said today that a “combination of errors” by Sunlight and the FCC resulted in an undercounting of the number of comments submitted through pro-net neutrality groups by at least 500,000.
The Sunlight Foundation responded this afternoon in a blog post pointing out that while the FCC said it received 3.9 million comments, the Sunlight Foundation only found around 2.8 million in the files released by the agency.
“As of now, it looks like there's a major discrepancy between the numbers of comments the FCC reported receiving and the number we actually found in files they released to the public,” the organization said. “This is something we pointed out in our earlier posts, but since it has become an issue, let’s be crystal clear: At this point, there’s a difference of 1,124,656 between what the FCC is reporting and what we counted in the files the agency provided."
Of course, the comments themselves are all public, but sifting through them on the FCC's Web site -- which only returns comments in batches of 100 a time -- presents a daunting challenge. The FCC tried to make things easier for researchers by publicly releasing the comments in a zipped XML file, but that process obviously had some glitches.
Regardless, the FCC likely won't decide questions about broadband policy based on whether more people weighed in against neutrality regulations or in favor of them. Still, it shouldn't be too much to expect that the agency responsible for setting broadband policy can accurately count -- and distribute -- people's comments on the matter.