Decoding the net neutrality debate

An analysis of media, public comment and advocacy on open Internet

Decoding the net neutrality debate

An analysis of media, public comment and advocacy on open Internet

Read the intro Read the report
Knight and the Open Internet

Decoding the net neutrality debate

An analysis of media, public comment and advocacy on open Internet

Read the intro Read the report

The net neutrality debate

The debate over regulation of the Internet may be one of the most important of our day. Companies that have invested billions in Internet infrastructure contend that they need the ability to manage their networks, prioritizing some content over others to maintain service, and charging for higher speeds.

Advocates of net neutrality see the Internet as a utility, essential for individual learning, working, civic participation and free expression, as well as economic competition and innovation – too important to have fast lanes and slow lanes, with the fastest speeds going to the highest bidder.

The debate intensified this year, when the Federal Communications Commission invited public comment on new proposed regulations that stop short of the standards demanded by net neutrality advocates. The call elicited 3.7 million comments, as well as a storm of debate on Twitter and an avalanche of press coverage. Subsequently, President Barack Obama aligned with net neutrality supporters, but the new rules remain to be written.

The technical complexity of Internet regulation, and lack of direct historical precedent, make it difficult to engage the public in an informed debate and develop regulations that will remain effective over time. To tackle these challenges, both policymakers and citizens need to better understand public opinion, amid a torrent of organized advocacy from both sides. Knight Foundation partnered with Quid, a data analytics firm, to separate the signal from the noise.

Key players

Key players

The Federal Communications Commission regulates interstate and international communications in the United States and its territories. Its issuance of an order in 2010 aimed at preserving the open Internet precipitated a lawsuit by telecommunications company Verizon. This year an appeals court vacated portions of the order, setting the stage for the FCC to draft new rules and invite public comment.

Internet service providers and telecommunications companies provide the means—the pipelines—that connect the Internet to homes and businesses. They invest in cable and wireless networks that facilitate access and seek to recoup those costs and generate profits by providing services to the public and other customers. They include companies such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable.

The public uses connections provided by Internet service providers and telecommunications to access the Internet, which provides global links to family, friends and services.

Startups rely on the open Internet for offering services to customers; pay-to-play regulations that give preferential speed to established companies would inhibit competition.

Technology companies provide services and content to the public. They depend on Internet service providers and telecommunications companies for delivery. They include companies such as Amazon, Google and Netflix, which all deliver entertainment and media to the public.

Key takeaways

Analyzing the debate

Here are some of the broader questions the analysis raises:

• What is public sentiment related to net neutrality?

• How has net neutrality been covered in the media and discussed on social media? What has influenced the conversation?

• How are organizations and companies attempting to influence the net neutrality debate?

Quid conducted the following research on net neutrality:

• Media analysis of more than 35,000 news sources and 300,000 blogs from January to July 2014.
• Twitter analysis of 120,000 tweets with #NetNeutrality from July to August 2014 and from #InternetSlowdownDay.
• Comment analysis of about 1 million public filings to the Federal Communications Commission.
• Lobbying analysis of approximately 2,500 filings from 2009 to the second quarter of 2014 from the U.S. Senate Lobbying Disclosure Act Database.
• Grant funding analysis of data for media access and telecommunications companies.

Key players

Key takeaways

Public opinion was overwhelmingly pro net neutrality. The main narratives expressed on Twitter and FCC comments favored egalitarianism and fairness: Don’t create an Internet of haves and have-nots; treat the Internet like a utility, available for all. Net neutrality was also seen as essential for start-ups to succeed against established companies.

Telecom and cable companies chose lobbying over public debate. They appeared to make only limited efforts to sway public opinion through traditional or social media, instead pouring significant amounts of money into lobbying. Their main narrative focused on the enormous bandwidth used by content providers such as Netflix, who should not get a “free lunch” from companies that have invested billions in building networks.

Male and urban voices were overrepresented in the debate. As for the media, it covered the debate as a tech story and as a political story; local communities were not engaged.

Knight and the Open Internet

Twitter narrative

A central narrative during the period analyzed was that net neutrality stimulates innovation, helping startups compete against established companies. @Kickstarter, for example, tweeted to its 868,240 followers that “When we launched Kickstarter we didn’t need to negotiate a deal for access to the Internet fast lane. We just plugged in. #NetNeutrality”.

Advocates of net neutrality were dominant on Twitter. While some shared news and education stories on net neutrality, significantly more tweets analyzed led to advocacy sites, which generally offered templates to submit comments to the FCC.

Women were again underrepresented in the debate. Twitter users from metro Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. overrepresented in the conversation.

Based on an analysis of tweets from July 9 to Aug. 20, 2014.

Knight and the Open Internet

FCC narrative

Commenters on the Federal Communications Commission site overwhelmingly favored net neutrality, according to Quid’s sentiment analysis of 1.1 million of the the 3 million comments submitted. Unique comments – as opposed to those from templates –accounted for 40% of those analyzed, much higher than the typical 10-20%.

The largest clusters of comments had the following themes:

• There is strong legal ground for reclassification of Internet Service Providers as Title II common carriers

• The FCC should reject the proposed fast and slow lanes on the Internet

• Internet Service Providers already have monopolistic power

There were anti-net neutrality responses as well, but the only one common enough to register was from a template.

Knight and the Open Internet

Influencing the debate

Large Internet service providers, such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T have largely avoided the public debate, instead seeking influence through lobbying, spending more than $238 million on filings that mentioned the term “net neutrality” at least once, according to the Quid analysis.

Advocacy groups, particularly pro net neutrality groups, concentrated their outreach through Twitter, using impassioned language to call people to action. These groups have sought to encourage people to submit FCC comments, often even providing templates that break down into three areas:

• Protect the diversity of the Internet: 24 percent (of the templates submitted)

• Schedule public hearings before making a decision: 14 percent

• Reclassify Internet service provides to allow more regulation by the FCC: 14 percent

The only significant anti-regulation template (4 percent) advocated not reclassifying ISPs.

Knight and the Open Internet

Key questions

Quid’s analysis unveils the prevailing narratives and influencers shaping the net neutrality debate. It raises several provocative questions about the future of the open Internet and policy decisions:

• The public voice that has participated in the conversation has overwhelmingly supported net neutrality. How will that affect the final decisions made by the Federal Communications Commission and political leaders?

• The net neutrality debate has been dominated by men and a handful of major metropolitan areas. Since the voices of women and much of the country have not been equally represented, how will this affect the conversation and the policies that emerge? Should efforts be made to bring more voices into the conversation?

• What impact will lobbying have on the future of the open Internet, especially given that more money is devoted to lobbying against net neutrality?

Perhaps most important, we as a democratic society must consider how rules and regulations either protect or restrict our freedoms. At Knight Foundation, we believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. What are the actions that get us closer to that ideal?

Knight and the Open Internet

Knight and the Open Internet

Quid’s analysis is part of Knight Foundation’s commitment to supporting the free flow of information. Knight supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.

We first convened a panel to explore the issue of digital access in 2008: the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. A year later the commission released a report “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” with recommendations that were largely adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in its own report, “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age.”

More recently, the first Knight News Challenge of 2014 asked, How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation? Knight received 704 entries in the challenge, an open call for ideas, and in June awarded almost $3.5 million to 19 projects. The conversation continued in August during the 2014 Forum on Communications and Society at Aspen Institute where thought leaders explored how Internet regulation would help or hurt the potential of this resource.

Our Mission

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.

Informed & Engaged Communities.
© Copyright 2006 - 2014 The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation