FCC net neutrality comment process was plagued by fake comments

28 Nov 2017

Protesters against the repeal of net neutrality rules. Image: CDEL Family/Flickr

The discussion process around net neutrality has been plagued with controversy.

It has been just a few days since the FCC, helmed by Ajit Pai, vowed to press ahead with plans to dismantle Obama-era rules around net neutrality.

Rules forbidding the throttling and blocking of content will be removed, with a 14 December Congressional vote planned to solidify the decision.

Deluge of fake comments

The process has been scrutinised in recent days, with data scientist Jeff Kao publishing a Medium post on 23 November saying he found that more than 1m public comments in support of the planned net neutrality rollback are likely to be fake.

Using a technique called natural language processing, Kao scanned more than 22m comments submitted to the FCC’s website and found that more than 17m were duplicates. He did note, though, that many of the copies were “legitimate public mailing campaigns” that provided a text template for people to submit.

Kao said that many of the spam comments in favour of the repeal of net neutrality were unsettling to read. “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.”

He said that people who were supportive of retaining net neutrality were much more likely to write personal messages, and also posited that few submissions in favour of the repeal of the regulations were moved to write individualised notes. “It’s scary to think that organic, authentic voices in the public debate  are being drowned out by a chorus of spambots.”

FCC alleges fake comments on pro net neutrality side

The Washington Post reported on 24 November that the New York attorney general’s office was also reviewing the comments submitted to the FCC on the issue for the past six months.

It apparently found that hundreds of thousands of submissions may have impersonated New York residents, but attorney general Eric Schneiderman said the FCC has declined to furnish his office with further evidence such as data logs.

FCC spokesperson Brian Hart said the agency cannot investigate every comment due to a lack of resources. He pointed to 7.5m comments filed in favour of the regulations that looked to have been sent from 45,000 distinct email addresses, “all generated by a single fake e-mail generator website”. He also alleged that about 400,000 comments backing net neutrality originated from an email address based in Russia.

Kao was not convinced of the FCC’s line on the issue, telling Inverse: “Most commercial internet platforms will take measures to filter out spam and PR hacking attempts, either on the front-end or the back-end – this is standard practice.

“The proceeding has been taking comments for months. With all the resources at the FCC chair’s disposal, it feels to me more a problem of resource allocation.”

The entire public comments process for the issue looks to have been undermined and is now shrouded in confusion, particularly as the FCC is reluctant to cooperate and hand over data.

Protesters against the repeal of net neutrality rules. Image: CDEL Family/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects