New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called a press conference on Monday to demand a postponement of a 14 December 2017 vote by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on a proposed rollback of net neutrality regulations, declaring that the public comment process in advance of it has been “deeply corrupted.”
But Schneiderman is late – very late – to the party. Reports of fake and bot-generated comments started more than six months ago, before the official public comment period even began on 18 May 2017, after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed the rollback.
ZDNet reported on 10 May 2017 that more than 128,000 identical comments had already been submitted. Some whose names were on those comments told ZDNet they had not submitted them – including one “commenter” who said that they didn’t even know what net neutrality was.
Those reports continued regularly through the year, and the flawed comments process, as Naked Security reported in October this year, was almost embarrassingly obvious.
Data analytics company Gravwell claimed at the beginning of October that only about 18% (3,863,929) of the 21.8 million comments submitted on the FCC website and via its API were unique.
The rest were likely from “automated astroturfing bots,” Gravwell founder Corey Thuen said, adding that the fakes were easy to spot.
Schneiderman, who was joined at the press conference by FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, demanded that the vote be delayed. Rosenworcel, an Obama appointee, was nominated for another term in July by President Trump, and confirmed by the Senate.
Schneiderman said his office carried out a review of the comments on the impending vote. They found that at least one million of these may have been made by impersonators, including up to 50,000 claiming to be from New York. He also accused the FCC of failing to help investigate who might be behind the fakes. Rosenworcel added that nearly 50,000 of the comments to the FCC were from Russian email addresses.
The FCC has now agreed to assist, but Schneiderman said that offer came on the morning of the press conference, after nine previous requests for FCC logs to show the origin of the comments.
It is not just fake comments at issue, either. There are also complaints from advocacy groups, including the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), saying that the docket – the collected files for and against the proposed rollback – doesn’t include the 50,000 consumer complaints filed about Internet Service Providers (ISP) since the Obama net neutrality rules took effect in 2015.
According to Ars Technica, 28 Democratic senators are also complaining about that omission. In a letter to Pai, they wrote:
50,000 consumer complaints seem to have been excluded from the public record in this proceeding… we believe that your proposed action may be based on an incomplete understanding of the public record in this proceeding.
At the press conference, Schneiderman contended:
You cannot conduct a legitimate vote on a rulemaking proceeding if you have a record that is in shambles, as this one is.
Advocates of the rollback agree that the comment process has been corrupted, but they say it has been happening on both sides. Brian Hart, an FCC spokesman, told the Washington Post that 7.5 million comments in favor of maintaining net neutrality appeared to come from 45,000 email addresses, “all generated by a single fake e-mail generator website.”
He said another 400,000 comments in favor of net neutrality appeared to come from a Russian mailing address.
And Tina Pelkey, also speaking for the FCC, declared in an emailed statement on Monday to reporters that neither Schneiderman nor Rosenworcel had identified, “a single comment relied upon in the draft order as being questionable.”
The key phrase there is, of course, “relied upon” – a tacit acknowledgement of the fake comments, but also an assertion that nobody on the FCC, including Pai, is giving them any credence.
There is no indication yet that the vote will be delayed. But opponents say they think the number of bogus comments will help them in a court battle to overturn the vote, if Congress doesn’t block it until an investigation is complete. Evan Greer, campaign director for the advocacy group Fight for the Future, told the Post:
It’s all about Congress for right now. But this (fake comments) will absolutely show up in court if we get there.