How to Write an Impactful Net Neutrality Comment (Which You Should Definitely Do)

This piece originally appeared in Mashable.

The Trump FCC’s proceeding to repeal the 2015 Net Neutrality rules and the legal footing (Title II of the Communications Act of 1934) in which they are grounded is in full swing. The rules ensure that internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon don’t discriminate in favor of or against certain internet content and services. Already, nearly 5 million comments have been filed at the agency, and many more are to be expected by the comment deadline on July 17. Reply comments are due on Aug. 16.

Several organizations have templates for comments, and that works if what you want to do is express general support for Net Neutrality and Title II. But others allow you to draft your own comments, and of course you can file your thoughts directly to the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System yourself. These tools give you the ability to take a deeper dive into why the rules are important and should be retained. In-depth comments that address key issues show the breadth of support for the rules and can help bolster the inevitable legal case against the repeal. 

So what makes for a persuasive comment that can help build a record to preserve the rules? Here are four suggestions:  

1. Write about yourself and how the Net Neutrality rules have affected you

While it might be amusing to file your comment under the name Mickey Mouse or John Oliver, it greatly diminishes the comment's value (and wrongly gets lumped in with actual phony comments using names stolen from hacked databases). It’s better to tell the FCC who you are and why an open internet is important to you.  

Maybe you are an entrepreneur who sells craft chocolates and coffee and could never compete if Godiva and Starbucks paid for faster carriage. Perhaps you sell crafts on Etsy, which would never have caught the public’s eye if ISPs could favor Amazon or eBay for any reason.  Maybe you own a local alarm company that would not survive had AT&T and Comcast been allowed to favor their own alarm systems over yours.  

But you don’t have to have an online business or sell things to have a story. Has Facebook or Skype connected you with long-lost friends and family? Were you able to complete a high school, college or graduate degree over the internet? Has internet access improved your quality of life in any significant way? If you believe those benefits would be lost should ISPs be able to pick winners and losers on the internet, say so. 

2. Write about what you understand you are buying when you purchase broadband-internet access

For the FCC to reverse its 2015 determination that broadband ISPs are “telecommunications services” subject to greater oversight under Title II, it must show that ISPs are offering, and you understand that you are buying, not just a fast on-ramp to the internet, but a bundle of “information services,” like email, cloud storage and other proprietary over-the-top services. In 2002, when broadband-internet access was nascent, the FCC found the latter and deregulated broadband. 

In 2015, the FCC examined a very different and more mature market for broadband-internet access. It looked both at what consumers believed they were buying from their ISP, and how ISPs advertised their products to consumers. What they found was that, overwhelmingly, consumers were looking to buy a fast pathway to the internet. Not coincidentally, that’s what ISPs advertised — transmission speed and in the case of mobile, reliability and coverage. 

Today, that is still the case — over the past few weeks, I’ve received solicitations from RCN and Verizon Fios for broadband-internet access service. In the biggest, boldest letters were the speeds — 330 Mbps download speeds for the former, gigabit speeds for the latter. There was scant mention of other online services and in fact, Verizon Fios is phasing out its email service this month. 

Tell the FCC why you buy internet access. Is it to get an email address, cloud storage or other online services from that specific provider? Or is it to get reliable access to all the internet offers at fast speeds? Tell the FCC if you get email, cloud storage, web hosting and other over-the-top services from someone other than your ISP.  If you’ve received a solicitation from an ISP, scan and attach it to your comments or quote what it says.  

3. Write about the choices you have (or don’t) for broadband-internet access

One of the arguments the FCC will almost certainly make in repealing the rules is that they aren’t necessary because if your ISP is discriminating, you can always choose another. 

An April 2017 FCC report demonstrates the fallaciousness of such an assertion — it shows that 58 percent of Americans have access to either zero or one broadband ISP, and 87 percent have access to just two. You might address some or all these questions: What choices do you have at 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up (the FCC’s definition of broadband)? Are they real choices or are all the ISPs charging the same prices for essentially the same service? What are the costs to you of switching? Would you suffer a financial penalty? Would you have to buy new equipment?  Would you have to take a day or two off from work waiting for installation?  

4. Write about what role you think the FCC should have in overseeing the market for broadband-internet access

As I’ve written previously, the debate over Net Neutrality is really one about whether the FCC, which is tasked by law to oversee communications networks, will have any role in overseeing access to the most important network of our lifetimes. This role includes ensuring that consumers are protected from, among other things, invasions of their privacy, fraudulent billing, and price gouging by their broadband providers. If the FCC is left without authority over broadband ISPs, Comcast could double its prices overnight, and there wouldn’t be anything the FCC or any other agency could do about it. 

If you aren’t OK with that, and think that broadband ISPs should be subject to oversight by an expert agency, tell the FCC why and what type of oversight you’d like to see.   

The last word

Don’t worry if you’ve already filed a comment that doesn’t address these issues — you can file new comments addressing these and/or other issues. Over the course of a proceeding like this, companies and organizations on both sides of the debate will file many comments, including after they visit FCC commissioners and staff to make their cases. So don’t hesitate — we need to build the strongest possible record if the Net Neutrality rules, and an open internet, are to be preserved.

Gigi Sohn is a fellow with Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Law & Policy, the Open Society Foundations and Mozilla. She served as counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler from November 2013–December 2016.

Original photo by Flickr user John Loo