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The net neutrality comment period was a complete mess

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How much is 22 million comments worth?

After months of debate, protests, and disruptions, the FCC’s comment period on its proposal to kill net neutrality is now over. The commission stopped accepting comments at midnight Eastern time last night, closing out with nearly 22 million total replies — setting an immense new record. The FCC’s previous comment record was just 3.7 million, set during the last net neutrality proceeding.

But the process of receiving all those comments was far from smooth this time around. The FCC’s website is fairly confusing. It’s also, apparently, susceptible to spam and other attacks, which we saw at multiple points across the past four months.

Early on, it became clear that an enormous number of spam replies were slipping through, including some that were attached to real people’s names and addresses, without their consent. There appeared to be tens of thousands of fakes as of early May, just weeks after the process started.

The comment system also went down briefly in May due to a spike in traffic after John Oliver aired a segment on net neutrality and directed viewers to the site. The commission said the site went down due to a denial of service attack, rather than a typical traffic surge. But in the months since, the commission has declined to elaborate on details of the attack or provide any sort of documentation on what really happened, leaving room for speculation that the site was simply placed under too much stress by legitimate visitors.

Meanwhile, a telecom-backed study released yesterday found that many original comments are attached to disposable email addresses, which opens up the possibility that some of them are fake. It’s not clear how the FCC plans to deal with that, or the fact that it has such an overwhelming number of responses to sift through, but it’ll have to figure something out.

All the while, the FCC’s chairman has been trying to explain that comments don’t really matter anyway, despite the commission’s requirement to act in the public interest and take public feedback. From the very beginning of the proceeding, FCC leadership laid out that it would be the quality, not the quantity, of the comments that made a difference. On the surface, that’s a reasonable argument, but it’s being set out as an excuse to ignore the overwhelming millions of comments in support of net neutrality in favor of few well-written filings by Comcast and the like. (Comcast, full disclosure, is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.) Even the telecom-funded study found that 60 percent of comments were in favor of keeping net neutrality in place.

Now that the comment period has ended, the FCC will begin work on a revised version of its proposal, which it will then vote on and quite likely pass, making it official policy. The commission is supposed to factor public input into its revisions — and in fact, much of the original proposal was just a big series of open-ended questions — so it’ll probably be a little while before we see a final draft.

Even with the outpouring of support for net neutrality, it’s always seemed likely that the internet protections introduced in 2015 were going down. The new proposal would undo the classification of internet providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act, and in doing so, strip the FCC of the authority needed to enforce true net neutrality — that is, no blocking, throttling, or prioritization of content.

Without Title II, the FCC can only put in place weaker versions of those rules. And the big question we’re waiting to see is not so much whether the FCC will completely change course, but whether it’ll decide to put any sort of protections in place at all. When the commission first introduced its proposal in April, it seemed skeptical that any kind of internet protections were needed, arguing that harms like blocked apps and throttled speeds were nonexistent.

Even after millions of comments arguing that internet protections are needed, it’s entirely possible that the commission will go ahead with its original, bare-bones plan to simply kill net neutrality and leave everything else up to internet providers to sort out. But if the commission does decide to put in place some sort of protections, then we’ll have another debate to run through — one over exactly how effective those rules might be, and exactly how many ways companies can weasel around them.