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October 24, 2009

FCC’s Net Neutrality discussion board

The FCC has put up a site — openinternet.gov — where anyone (after registering with a valid email address) can post an idea, or vote existing ideas up or down. I love the idea of the feds opening discussions up, although, I am not convinced that this particular implementation achieves its presumed aims. But, what the heck! Try-fail-try is the right rhythm for the Net.

The site defaults to listing the ideas reverse chronologically, which adds some serendipity, or you can choose to view them listed in order of popularity, which encourages piling on. You can also browse by category/tag.

Anyone who registers can post a comment. The comments are unthreaded, discouraging much development of ideas but also discouraging flaming. You can report a comment as being “abusive,” but otherwise cannot rate them.

At the moment, the most popular posting is from Tim Karr, who, according to his biography at SaveTheInternet.com, a site sponsored by FreePress.net, “oversees all Free Press campaigns and online outreach efforts, including SavetheInternet.com.” Tim — who I know a bit and like — is an activist. He has the most popular post at the FCC’s site presumably because FreePress.net sent out a mailing urging supporters to vote it up.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s how politics is played in this country. If an anti-NN group sponsored by, say, AT&T wanted to play the same game, it’s perfectly entitled to. It’s not hard to imagine a well-funded group swamping FreePress’s shoestring efforts and getting orders of magnitudes more people to thumbs-up an anti-NN comment.

Which is to say that an open discussion board like the one the FCC has posted can serve either of two purposes. It can be a place where people come for rational discussions across political positions, or it can serve as an informal poll of citizens’ sentiments about an issue. But combining the two means that neither works very well. It becomes simply an opportunity for gaming the system.

It seems to me that sites such as these cannot serve as a poll that has any value at all. Besides, we have lots of other ways of gauging public opinion, including scientific polling and elections. If, on the other hand, the FCC wants to sponsor a forum for useful discussion or to generate new ideas, it could modify the current implementation. For example — and these are just ideas that may turn out to be gigantic belly flops — comments could be divided into two tracks, pro and con, with most-popular listings for each. Readers could be allowed to vote up but not down. Comments could be threaded. The comments could be rated. Postings could have buttons for “agree/disagree” and “interesting,” so that the site could highlight articles that people disagree with but find interesting.

All of these techniques could be gamed because everything can be gamed. Some discussion boards do work, though. I don’t know what the magic keys are, but I’m pretty confident that a political discussion board that includes an overall popularity contest will so encourage gaming that its results will necessarily be unreliable. At the very least, the popularity contest should be confined to determining the best arguments for each side.

But I don’t want to close on a negative note, for the FCC is to be congratulated on its efforts to open its processes up not only to lobbyists and geeks who know how to walk and talk like an FCC commenter, but to the general public. And it’s doing so in the proper Webby way of taking small steps and not being afraid to fail in public. That takes guts.

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