So we've been talking for months now about how the Trump FCC has quite intentionally turned a blind eye to fraudulent comments being posted to the agency's net neutrality proceeding, since the lion's share of these bogus comments support the agency's plan to gut the popular consumer protections. Numerous people say they've had their identities lifted by somebody that has used a bot to populate the agency's comment system with hundreds-of-thousands of fake comments supporting the telecom-industry backed effort. Calls by these folks (and a few Senators) for an investigation have been simply ignored.
I'm among the folks that had their identities used to generate bogus support for killing the rules. My case is, however, a bit more tailored and personal. Back in April, somebody posted this comment to the FCC comment system pretending to represent me and one of the websites I write for. In it, my obtuse doppleganger falsely claims I run an unlicensed political PAC, then proceeds to prattle through a series of repeatedly, painstakingly debunked claims about how the agency's arguably-modest rules somehow stifle investment, harm orphans, and damage the time-space continuum:
"I operate an unregistered PAC at DSLREPORTS.COM. We have found that the Obama administration's Title II order has diminished broadband investment, stifled innovation, and left American consumers potentially on the hook for a new broadband tax. Furthermore, under the Obama administration, the Wheeler FCC presided over a model whereby Internet competition has been stifled, and an unprecedented concentration of market power was allowed to occur with the Charter merger. Many unhappy users can attest to that on my political action website (DSLREPORTS.COM). I urge the Commission to roll back the failed Title II provisions and return the Internet to the people."
As somebody that has spent the better part of twenty years advocating for a healthy and open internet, this is obviously a little irritating, even if, by itself, I'm not egotistical enough to think it makes a difference one way or the other. But it is part of an over-arching and obvious trend at the FCC to try and dilute the value of public input on this proceeding, since they're well aware net neutrality has broad, bipartisan support (something yet another survey highlighted this week).
So, at the tail end of May I began filing complaints with the FCC's website administrators, and asking the agency's PR department to explain why they're doing nothing about the pile of bogus comments (some of which originate from dead people) spoiling what should be a simple democratic exercise. After repeated requests for comment, the agency said on June 2 that it had at least received my complaint, and would eventually get back to me. Another month passed -- and after several more prods this week I received this letter from G. Patrick Webre (pdf), acting chief of the FCC Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.
While the letter contains numerous paragraphs, none of them actually say all that much -- except the part that tries to claim the agency is forbidden from somehow modifying or editing public proceeding comments:
Once filed in the FCC's rulemaking record, there are limits on the agency's ability to delete, change, or otherwise remove comments from the record. Doing so could undermine the FCC's ability to carry out its legal obligation, which is which is to respond to all significant issues raised in the proceeding.
To that end we continue to encourage you and all members of the public to submit comments to the FCC via ECFS (electronic comment filing system) that include accurate identifying information. This will ensure that the record reflects your views. You are welcome to include your correspondence on this matter -- including a statement that the comment you reference were not filed by you -- in ECFS for the public record.
While the FCC claims it faces "limits" on its ability to modify or delete comments, I've spoken to several former FCC staffers and one telecom industry lawyer unfamiliar with any such restrictions, especially when it applies to outright and obviously-fraudulent comments. A request to the FCC for a specific definition of these legal limits -- and a request for the IP address in question -- have yet to be responded to. The other problem is that the FCC is basically saying it doesn't care about any of this, informing users that have had their identities used to root against their own best self interests that they should just re-file new comments.
If you're thinking these comments don't really matter (which is clearly what the current FCC thinks), you'd be wrong. The 4 million comments filed during these rules' creation in 2015 helped shift former FCC Boss Tom Wheeler's thinking away from what would have originally been a potentially-legally unsupportable position, and toward classification of ISPs as common carriers under Title II. The comments also matter when it comes time to defend the policies in court, since they go a long way toward documenting whether the agency is actually supporting the public interest -- or just mindlessly being dictated to by deep pocketed incumbents.
In the broader context of the bogus bot issue -- we're at best witnessing outright apathy to identity theft and abuse of the FCC website -- and at worse an attempt to discredit legitimate opposition to FCC policy by effectively sanctioning fraudulent behavior. That's a curious policy decision for an FCC boss that has repeatedly claimed to be a stickler for professionalism and transparency. You have to think that if I began submitting copyright-violating missives -- or a hundred comments professing to be Ajit Pai or some other high-ranking FCC official -- the response would be notably...different.
And while the FCC may think it's immeasurably clever to quietly encourage illusory support for its attack on net neutrality, the agency's decision could prove problematic for it down the line.
After the public comment period, the agency is expected to vote again to finalizing dismantling the rules. After that will come the inevitable lawsuits by startups and consumer advocates. Pai and friends already faced a challenge in convincing the courts the broadband market changed substantively enough to warrant such a draconian and unpopular policy reversal. Now, net neutrality supporters may have some additional ammunition when it comes time to pointing out flaws in the FCC process, and how an agency that's supposed to represent the public interest -- pretty clearly doesn't.