Study: FCC net neutrality comments rife with fake users, duplicate messages

Study: FCC net neutrality comments rife with fake users, duplicate messages
© Greg Nash

The public comments on the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) net neutrality docket are rife with duplicate messages and fake identities, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis.

The organization found that of the 21.7 million comments submitted to the FCC on the Obama-era rules this year, just 6 percent were unique. The other 94 percent were duplicate comments. And in some cases thousands of identical messages were submitted simultaneously, suggesting campaigns used “bots” to influence the agency’s public record.

The study also found that 57 percent of the comments were submitted by users with duplicate or temporary email addresses, making it difficult to determine their authenticity in many cases.

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The Republican-controlled FCC is expected to repeal the net neutrality rules in December. The 2015 regulations require internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally, prohibiting them from blocking, throttling or prioritizing certain content.

The agency was flooded with a record number of comments this summer when it solicited public input on whether it should keep the rules.

Evan Greer, campaign director for the pro-net neutrality group Fight for the Future, said that the FCC is to blame for the abuse of the comment system. 
 
“The FCC sabotaged its own public comment process for the exact purpose of sowing the type of confusion that we’re seeing now,” Greer said. “They knowingly allowed malicious actors to abuse their system and submit enormous numbers of fraudulent comments using real people’s names and addresses without their permission, and they’ve refused to cooperate with investigations or transparency laws.”
 
Greer also said there were some inconsistencies with the study. For instance, she pointed out that there were legitimate reasons for thousands of comments to be submitted at once, noting that the agency had encouraged groups to upload batches of comments simultaneously.

According to Pew, the seven most common messages found in the record comprise 38 percent of all comments. Six of those were anti-net neutrality messages, submitted a combined 5.5 million times.

The most commonly submitted message was a form comment found on a pro-net neutrality site that was promoted by John Oliver, who advocated for the rules on his weekly HBO show. Pew found that the comment was submitted 2.8 million times.

“When the Center analyzed the comments submitted during the 2014 net neutrality debate, about 450,000 comments were submitted to the FCC,” Aaron Smith, Pew’s associate research director, said in a statement.

“This year’s comment volume dwarfed that and our analysis highlights the relative ease with which online commenting systems allow groups and individuals to mount large-scale campaigns for public policies,” Smith said. “Such efforts were difficult to orchestrate in the pre-internet era and even three years ago were not taking place at the scale it has this time."

An FCC spokesperson said this is evidence that rulemaking should not be treated like a "public opinion poll."

"This demonstrates why a rulemaking proceeding is not a public opinion poll and why the FCC focuses on the quality not the quantity of the comments," a spokesperson for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement, citing the prevalence of identical pro-net neutrality comments.

"The draft order that the Commission released last week is based on the facts and the law, and everyone can see for themselves which comments are cited in that document," the spokesperson said.

- This report was updated at 2:14 p.m. EST