When 'bots' outnumber humans, the public comment process is meaningless
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Over the last month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received 2.6 million public comments critical of Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to roll back President Obama’s "net neutrality" rules. This outpouring of public sentiment must be evidence of participatory democracy at it best, right?

Not quite. A sizable percentage of these comments appear to be fake.

Net neutrality proponents barraged the FCC with messages arguing that the Obama era rules ensured equal and open access to the Internet. A blizzard of comments from opponents charged exactly the opposite: that the rules put the Web under government control, mainly to the benefit of big Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook.

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A lot of the messages sound very similar, which is not surprising given some high profile campaigns, including that by HBO talk host John Oliver, who encouraged his viewers to contact the FCC and comment on the “pro” side. Opponents of net neutrality launched their own messaging campaigns sending hundreds of thousands of their own comments to the commission.

 

I serve as president of the National Legal and Policy Center, which has not taken a position on net neutrality. We are an ethics watchdog group with a longstanding interest in federal rulemaking and the arcane public comment process. We have also exposed a lot of fraud, so we decided to see if some level of deception undergirded the comment process.

So we conducted a forensic examination of the 2.6 million comments that favored the rules, and what we found may cause net neutrality supporters to think twice when they suggest that the deception is only coming from the “anti” side. The findings were astounding.

More than 465,322 pro-net neutrality comment submissions (close to 20 percent of all pro-net neutrality comments filed) appear to have been submitted under questionable circumstances. In many cases, commenters used email addresses that obviously belonged to someone else. Often, the same email was used to file multiple comments – in some cases thousands of times.

Over 100,000 examples of identical comments using language from an Electronic Frontier Foundation letter program were submitted from what appeared to be a fake email generator program using as many as ten different email domains. A spot check of dozens of the 100,000 comments also revealed that the submissions included fake physical addresses and maybe even fake names.

Comments submitted from multiple filers using various foreign and U.S. email addresses that appear to have been culled from spammer and hacker databases available on the public. Thousands of other pro-net neutrality filers used what appear to be other people’s private email addresses. Based on our analysis, the email addresses appear in many cases to have either been culled from spam and hacker databases available on the open web, or from other publicly available files found on the open web such as PDF files – some not even in the U.S. In one case, an email address and name that appears to have been pulled from an Islamic hacker database on the public Web was associated with seven different individuals submitting comments.

What the net neutrality comment debacle underscores is that the Internet age may mean the collapse of the public comment process, at least for significant public policy issues. Sophisticated bots and automated comment platforms can create thousands and thousands of comments from senders who may or may not be real.

Moreover, the process has become somewhat antiquated in the digital age. Anyone can submit a comment with no vetting to determine if they are in fact real people. The comments are advisory only, carrying no real weight. And in this example, commissioners on the FCC received ample input through other means made available by the Web. While the public comment process can be important, it's clear the process as it exists can be easily gamed by either side of any issue. 

Most rulemaking pertains to subject matter that is less widely-watched than net neutrality, and usually concerns only a small sliver of the public. The public comment process has some virtues and should continue. It is time to recognize, however, that for rulemaking over issues on the scale of net neutrality, with entrenched and vocal participants on both sides of the aisle, the public comment process has become a farce. 

Peter Flaherty is president of the National Legal and Policy Center.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.