This afternoon, the FCC announced the release of a bulk, machine-readable archive of the more than 1.1 million comments they received during the first comment period of their Open Internet rulemaking proceeding. We’re excited both that a regulatory proceeding has managed to attract such unprecedented levels of public interest (it’s likely the first to get not one but two lengthy treatments on HBO) and that the FCC has decided to release the comments in bulk, in a machine-readable format. Especially given the volume of comments—more than five times as many as in the largest dockets in our Docket Wrench tool—reading through each and every comment is likely impossible for even the most dedicated researchers and journalists, and bulk data will make it possible to employ automated tools to search, group, visualize, and otherwise make sense of what’s sure to be a treasure trove of data about public sentiment and special-interest influence, and their effects on public policy.
Sunlight has a long history of reporting on public comments and building tools to help visualize their contents, and in the coming days and weeks we intend to bring this experience and infrastructure to bear on this promising new dataset.
Of course, we would be remiss for not pointing out that our past reporting and analysis generally hasn’t included the FCC’s comment data, in large measure because historically they haven’t made bulk releases such as this one, or made it easy for researchers to access the plain text of the comments they receive (indeed, the FCC’s comment data is missing from our Docket Wrench tool, which includes comments from 175 other federal agencies, for this reason), and as much potential as this release has, at this time it appears to be a one-off dump that we don’t expect to be repeated for rulemakings beyond the Open Internet initiative going forward. In their announcement today, the FCC discussed the importance of open data in greater transparency in public deliberations, and we hope this release is just the first step in a broader open data effort at the FCC to improve bulk access to information about their interactions with the public.