As the Federal Communications Commission prepares to dismantle its net neutrality rules for internet providers, a mounting backlash from agency critics is zeroing in on what they say are thousands of fake or automated comments submitted to the FCC that unfairly skewed the policymaking process.
Allegations about anomalies in the record are quickly becoming a central component of a campaign by online activists and some government officials to discredit the FCC’s plan.
“The process the FCC has employed,” wrote New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman this week in a letter to the FCC, “has been corrupted by the fraudulent use of Americans’ identities.”
For the past six months, Schneiderman continued, the New York attorney general’s office has been reviewing the comments filed at the FCC on net neutrality. It found that “hundreds of thousands” of submissions may have impersonated New York residents – a potential violation of state law. But, he said, the FCC has declined to provide further evidence that could help move the investigation forward, such as data logs and other information.
Some consumers have complained that their own names or addresses have been hijacked and used to submit false comments to the FCC that they did not support. Others have pointed to the bizarre appearance of comments submitted by people who are deceased. Public comments play an important role at the FCC, which typically solicits feedback from Americans before it votes to make significant policy changes. The agency didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The comments targeted by Internet activists largely back the FCC’s decision to repeal Obama-era regulations aimed at ensuring all websites, large and small, are treated equally by internet providers. Consumer groups fear that without the rules, internet providers could begin charging some websites or services more to reach their customers – regular internet users, who may ultimately bear the cost of the new fees. They also say internet providers could artificially speed up services they own or have special relationships with, to the detriment of start-ups and small businesses. For their part, internet providers have promised not to block or slow down content that they do not like.
But internet providers have also spent significant time and money lobbying for the regulations to be reversed. And some of the public comments, critics say, bear a striking resemblance to industry talking points.
“It was particularly chilling to see these spam comments all in one place, as they are exactly the type of policy arguments and language you expect to see in industry comments on the proposed repeal,” wrote Jeff Kao, a data scientist who published a study of the pro-repeal comments Thursday, in a blog post.
Like Schneiderman, Kao performed his own analysis of the net neutrality comment record. Using an algorithm to sort out duplicate entries, Kao said he was then able to apply another algorithm to identify the remaining comments that could be considered “unique.” Further analysis revealed that even some of the unique submissions shared common language and syntax, suggesting they weren’t unique at all but perhaps written by a computer program in ways that made each submission appear slightly different.
For example, one submission read “Citizens, as opposed to Washington bureaucrats, should be empowered to buy whatever products they prefer.” Another retained much the same format but with certain words rearranged: “Individual citizens, as opposed to Washington bureaucrats, should be able to select whichever services they desire.”
While it is common for advocacy campaigns to recruit people to sign and submit form letters to the FCC, Kao said that those who supported keeping the rules were far more likely to write personal, heartfelt messages. Despite the polarizing nature of the policy fight, few commenters who supported the repeal were moved to develop their own, original messages – an indication to Kao that many in the pro-repeal camp may have been bots, or spam.
“It’s scary to think that organic, authentic voices in the public debate are being drowned out by a chorus of spambots,” Kao wrote.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said repeatedly that when it comes to the comments on net neutrality, the agency’s rulemaking process would favor quality over quantity.
But Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic FCC commissioner who supports keeping the rules, said Pai needs to do more.
“They need to get out from behind their desks and computers and speak to the public directly,” Rosenworcel wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. “The FCC needs to hold hearings around the country to get a better sense of how the public feels about the proposal.”
Calling the FCC comment system “a mess,” Rosenworcel added that some 50,000 consumer complaints appear to have disappeared from the agency’s records. She also highlighted a Government Accountability Office probe into an alleged denial-of-service attack that the FCC claimed prevented consumers from filing submissions on the net neutrality plan.
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