FCC’s Broken Comments System Could Help Doom Net Neutrality

This past April, the Federal Communications Commission invited the American people to weigh in on whether the federal government should roll back the rules currently in place to protect net neutrality. By the time the online comment submission period ended last Wednesday, the agency had collected 21.9 million comments, an astounding level of participation on what at first glance appears to be a rather esoteric telecommunications policy issue. (For comparison, when the FCC received around 500,000 postcards and emails about its media ownership rule changes in 2003, it was considered a big deal. Even Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl garnered only about 1.4 million comments.)

So what did the people say? The industry group Broadband for America, which opposes the FCC’s current rules, recently commissioned an analysis of the comments from a company called Emprata. The study determined that a majority of the comments–about 60 percent–favor keeping the FCC’s current rules, which classify internet service providers as “Title II” common carriers like mobile and landline phone companies and ban them from blocking or interfering with lawful content. If you look only at unique comments, as opposed to form letters using boilerplate text, those in favor of keeping the Title II rules outweigh those who want to jettison the rules 1.52 million to 23,000.

The only hitch: the commenting process was such a debacle that the legitimacy of the entire body of comments is now in question.

Many of the comments were filed with obviously bogus names. Among the more visible cases of name theft: journalist and net neutrality advocate Karl Bode’s identity was used without his consent for a comment favoring a roll back of the rules. FCC chair Ajit Pai’s name was used on hundreds of comments opposing his proposal, some threatening him with death or using racial slurs. John Oliver’s name was used on more than 2,000 of comments as well. On a case by case basis, these forgeries are easy enough to spot. But in aggregate, they’re making it harder to draw conclusions about the overall public sentiment of the proceeding.

Starting in May, the FCC’s site was also hit with what appeared to be a spambot submitting hundreds of thousands of anti-Title II comments with the exact same boilerplate language. ZDNet reported at the time that many of the people whose personal information was found in the spambot comments claimed that their identities were used without their…

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