FCC's net neutrality record is plagued by bots, bogus comments, and a reporter's home address

Net Neutrality-Fact Check
Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has scheduled a vote for Thursday that would discard net neutrality protections against throttling internet traffic or blocking web sites. Critics are calling for investigation into the millions of comments submitted to the agency as it drafted the new rules.

As a reporter, I am supposed to be unbiased and objective. No public advocacy. No free lunches from corporations. No political signs in my front yard.

So imagine my surprise when I casually inserted my name into a search engine of the 23.5 million commenters who supposedly wrote this year to the Federal Communications Commission as it drafted new rules eliminating Obama-era net neutrality protections against throttling internet traffic and blocking websites.

I found myself.

And not only me. But my wife, Mae, too.

And three sons.

With our home address in Pennsylvania.

We filed as one big happy family, according to the public record.

On Monday I emailed the FCC with my concerns. What’s going on?

The FCC’s chief spokesman, Brian Hart, apologized, adding that reporters’ names are being commonly identified in the public docket as commenters and “the same is being done to FCC staff.”

Hart said he himself is listed as commenting “over a hundred times.”

Something has gone terribly wrong as the FCC has sought to deregulate the internet this year — a signature agenda item on Thursday, Dec. 14, for FCC head Ajit Pai — with pornhub.com, FakeMailGenerator.com, advocacy groups, and Russian entities flooding the federal agency with tens of millions of comments both for and against new rules, in hopes of influencing the FCC bureaucracy and leadership.

Many of those comments were bogus: Pew Research Center estimates that only 6 percent seemed to be bona fide views of real Americans.

And one million Americans may have had their email addresses stolen to submit comments to the FCC, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says. He has opened an investigation and posted a link to search the FCC’s  data base for misappropriate use of personal emails. (This was the link I used to find my name.)

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said Friday that the “FCC has knowingly maintained a system that has already been corrupted and susceptible to abuse.”

University of Pennsylvania professor Victor Pickard said Monday that it was “shockingly irresponsible” for the FCC not to investigate this fraud and believes that no vote on new internet regulations should be taken until public integrity is restored in the agency.

While apologizing over the misuse of the emails, the FCC says that bogus or bot-generated comments have no bearing on its decision-making.

A vote on the new rules — which the FCC says will restore a “light-touch” regulation regime to the internet — is scheduled for Thursday in Washington. It will reclassify the internet as an information service instead of a utility. Critics fear it could create fast lanes and slow lanes for favored content. The new rules are expected to pass along partisan lines, three Republicans opposing two Democrats.

Comcast, Verizon, and other big telecom companies support the deregulation and have lobbied the FCC over Thursday’s vote.

FCC spokesman Hart said Monday that the public comments are not a “public opinion poll” and that the goal is to “gather facts and legal arguments so that the Commission can reach a well-supported decision.”

But highly suspicious e-mail patterns have been known for months.

An August report by Emprata LLC, underwritten by a lobbying group for the telecom industry, noted that 444,938 comments emanated from Russia. Experts don’t believe that Russians were meddling in the net neutrality proceeding as they were believed to have interfered in the 2016 election. Instead, Russian servers sent the bulk emails.

In late November, the independent Pew Research Center in Washington released the 18-page report with a tick-tock of e-mails to the FCC over net neutrality. During nine days in May and July, more than 75,000 public comments were e-mailed at the very same moment to FCC computer servers. The biggest bulk e-mailing came on July 19: 475,482 comments submitted at exactly 2:57 p.m.

Simultaneous submissions suggest that the FCC was the target of “organized bot campaigns” on the internet, Pew said.

(My family’s pro-net-neutrality comment was delivered to the FCC on May 17. According to Pew, a bulk email dump of 80,479 comments blasted the FCC at 8:53 p.m. on May 18.)

The text of many comments was identical or nearly identical, the result of form letters that Americans could submit over the internet, Pew said.

The most pro-net neutrality comments were associated with battleforthenet.com, which has staged national protests against Thursday’s FCC vote. Popular or pro-FCC comments were linked to Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a nonprofit group that seeks to hold government accountable, according to its website.

Jeff Kao, a lawyer and data scientist in the San Francisco area who analyzed the e-mails and posted his research online, said that the FCC could have taken steps to weed out bogus comments as online companies such as Amazon and Yelp do. “It’s disappointing that the process has been left to be a dumping ground for people with an agenda on the internet,” he said.

Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, says the FCC has obstructed his investigation into what he says could be email impersonation. His office says the FCC has failed to respond to multiple letters seeking information.

“It’s easy for the FCC to claim that there’s no problem with the process, when they’re hiding the very information that would allow us to determine if there was a problem,” his spokeswoman, Amy Spitalnick, said in a statement Friday.

“To be clear, impersonation is a violation of New York law. Thousands of people have already reported to us that their identities were stolen and used without their consent to submit comments to the FCC,” she added. “The only privacy jeopardized by the FCC’s continued obstruction of this investigation is that of the perpetrators who impersonated real Americans.”

The FCC responded last week that it doesn’t have to disclose the information on the emails to Schneiderman’s office.

The FCC’s Hart said that the federal regulatory agency has erred “on the side of openness” and in not policing the comments. But he added, “We reserve the right to revisit this determination should circumstances warrant.”