Tens of thousands of identical messages calling for net-neutrality rules to be repealed have flooded the Federal Communication Commission website's public comments section, throwing more chaos into the agency's effort to tackle a controversial internet policy.
The barrage of identical messages, which appeared in the last two days, have raised questions about whether the comments represent legitimate public feedback on the FCC's proposed rules or whether the messages could be the work of automated computer "bots."
And the anti-net-neutrality messages come on the heels of an effort by TV personality John Oliver to mobilize his viewers to flood the FCC website with messages supporting the Obama-era rules.
At issue are current rules that classify internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon as public utility-like “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act. Those rules legally prevent ISPs from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing certain traffic on their networks in exchange for financial gain.
In late April, FCC boss Ajit Pai issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that aims to take the first steps to overturn the rules, a change that most ISP's support.
The FCC is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its next public meeting on May 18. If it is approved, as expected, a second vote will then be needed before any formal changes take effect.
Questions of authenticity
In between all of that, the FCC has opened a public comment period. This is a procedure in which the agency seeks feedback on how best to approach whatever it is considering. In this case, the feedback is for Pai’s proposal, which is titled “Restoring Internet Freedom.” The comment period opened in late April, and will close in mid-August.
As of this writing, however, more than 128,000 comments saying the exact same thing have been left on the docket for the proposal in just the past three days. They are all in favor of the rollback, and read as follows:
The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation. I urge the Federal Communications Commission to end the bureaucratic regulatory overreach of the internet known as Title II and restore the bipartisan light-touch regulatory consensus that enabled the internet to flourish for more than 20 years. The plan currently under consideration at the FCC to repeal Obama's Title II power grab is a positive step forward and will help to promote a truly free and open internet for everyone.
There have been roughly 740,000 comments left regarding the proposal as of this writing, so, while the apparent spam doesn’t not make up a majority, it does represent a significant chunk of the total.
The comments have been left in near-alphabetical order, and largely appear to be using genuine names and addresses in their filings. According to separate reports from ZDNet and The Verge earlier Wednesday, however, at least some of the individuals listed say they had not commented whatsoever.
The FCC declined to comment on whether it was aware of the identical messages, and if it would take such messages into consideration when going about its official policies.
The fact that the comments are identical isn't a sign of nefarious activity in and of itself, but the lack of a clear source for the message, the alphabetically-organized filings, the reported denials of those who are listed as commenters, and the sheer volume of comments listed in such a short time frame, raises questions about their legitimacy.
More work to be done
This isn’t the first time a wave of identical, pro-reversal comments have been left on the docket. The Daily Dot found thousands of copies of a similar message shortly after the public comment period opened. At least 2,000 copies of another message expressing similar sentiments are in there as of this writing, too.
In each case, it’s unclear who exactly is behind the apparent spam. Some commenters on Reddit have suggested the newest comments stem from a 2010 press release from a conservative lobbying group, but the wording there is different enough to make any link tenuous.
This latest flood comes just days after HBO personality John Oliver urged his viewers to contact the FCC in support of the Obama-era rules, echoing a similar call from 2014 that many saw as boosting the public’s awareness of net-neutrality the last time the topic was under debate.
As ZDNet notes, a Vice News report said that heaps of fake comments were left around that time as well, and suggested that anti-net neutrality lobbyist groups may have been behind the charge.
Oliver’s segment is thought to have significantly increased the number of comments left on the site over the past few days. (One report said the total was around 30,000 as of Friday.)
Earlier this week, however, the FCC said it was hit by multiple DDoS attacks around the same time as Oliver’s HBO show, bringing down the comment page in the process. Pro-Title-II lobbyist groups and some Democratic senators have since called for more information on the exact details of those attacks.
The sheer number of messages could make it more difficult for the FCC to sift through those who’ve left their genuine thoughts and potentially fake, computer-generated comments.
Either way, don’t expect Pai to make his decision based on which position is more popular with the public; as we’ve noted before, the FCC chief has already declared that he'll only take comments that he feels provide “substantial evidence” into consideration.
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