The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

FCC net neutrality process ‘corrupted’ by fake comments and vanishing consumer complaints, officials say

In the latest news of the net neutrality fight, the Senate approved a resolution that will attempt to reverse the FCC's act of deregulating the Internet. (Video: Jhaan Elker, Brian Fung/The Washington Post)

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  in letters to the FCC that their own names or addresses have been hijacked and used to submit false comments to the FCC that they did not support. Opponents of the FCC’s plan 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.

Brian Hart, an FCC spokesman, said the agency lacks the resources to investigate every comment. Supporters of the net neutrality rules are not blameless either, he added, pointing to 7.5 million comments filed in favor of the regulations that appeared to come from 45,000 distinct email addresses, "all generated by a single fake e-mail generator website." Some 400,000 comments backing the rules, he said, appeared to originate from a mailing address based in Russia.

"The most suspicious activity has been by those supporting Internet regulation," said Hart.

At its Dec. 14 meeting, the FCC plans to repeal Obama-era regulations that aimed at ensuring all websites, large and small, are treated equally by Internet providers. Some 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, broadband companies argue the rules are overly strict and discourage network providers from investing in infrastructure upgrades. The companies also have also 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,” said 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 to appear superficially different. In total, Kao estimates more than a million comments, supporting Pai's effort to repeal net neutrality, may have been faked.

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 said.

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 said 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.

Focusing on fake comments may not prevent the FCC from repealing the rules next month, but some activists say raising the issue could prompt lawmakers to intervene and push for delaying the agency's vote. Short of that, said Evan Greer, campaign director for the advocacy group Fight for the Future, the furor over fake comments could benefit supporters of the rules in any legal challenge to the FCC's plan.

"It's all about Congress for right now," said Greer. "But this will absolutely show up in court if we get there."