In the latest salvo in the war against net neutrality, Comcast has sent a cease-and-desist order to the digital rights group Fight for the Future that threatens legal action if their pro-net neutrality website isn't turned over to telecom giant.
The website in question—comcastroturf.com—calls for an investigation into thousands of potentially fake comments that have flooded the FCC's website after it solicited public comment on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's plan to roll back net neutrality regulations. The site allows anyone to enter their name to see if a fake comment has been filed on their behalf, and to submit evidence of this to Fight for the Future.
The cease and desist order sent to Fight for the Future alleges that the website is violating Comcast's "valuable intellectual property rights." It cites the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act and Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy as justification for its claim, which prohibit "registering, trafficking in, or using domain names that are identical or confusingly similar to a protected distinctive mark."
In a rebuke posted on Fight for the Future's site today, the organization has said it will not be handing the site over to Comcast and renewed its call for an investigation into the source of the nearly 500,000 public comments on the FCC's website.
"This is exactly why we need Title II net neutrality protections that ban blocking, throttling, and censorship," Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, said in a statement. "If Ajit Pai's plan is enacted, there would be nothing preventing Comcast from simply blocking sites like Comcastroturf.com that are critical of their corporate policies."
According to Fight for the Future, the website in question is a form of political speech, which is protected by the first amendment. The organization cited the 2005 Bosley Medical Institute vs. Kremer case as a justification for its claim, which ruled that a website critical of a company's business practices could not be liable for trademark infringement.
Given the legally dubious grounds Comcast is using in an attempt to censor the site, it makes you wonder what the telecom giant is so afraid of.
After the initial call for public comments in late April, the FCC quickly received hundreds of thousands of comments. Nearly half a million of these comments are identical and many are filed in alphabetical order, making it appear as though a bot was cycling through people's names and automatically posting comments.
Earlier this month, ZDNet and a local Colorado news station reached out to dozens of people whose names were listed next to the boilerplate comments on the FCC's websites. Many of these people said they had no idea that their name had been used to post anti-net neutrality comments on the FCC's site. It seems as though these names and addresses had been culled from lists stolen from government databases during various website breaches.
Just how many of the hundreds of thousands of comments posted to the FCC are fake is uncertain, as is the group responsible for the automated posts. Some have tied the text to a 2010 press release from an obscure anti-net neutrality group called the Center for Individual Freedom, but this still doesn't explain how these names were collected in the first place.
Fight for the Future points to the massive email lists used by the cable and telecom lobby group American Commitment in 2014 to send misleading emails soliciting anti-net neutrality comments on the FCC's website as a possible culprit. The lobby group claimed responsibility for half of the roughly 4 million net neutrality comments on the FCC's website that year. This time around, American Commitment also used a readymade online form to flood the comment section with anti-net neutrality speech.
As Comcast's cease and desist letter goes to show, the telecom industry will go to great lengths to silence the broad public support for net neutrality (a report by Fortune indicated that if the suspicious FCC comments are removed, 97 percent of the remaining comments are against the proposed anti-net neutrality legislation).
So far, the FCC hasn't made any indication that it is going to investigate these allegations of fraud, which prompted Fight for the Future to take the investigation into its own hands. Motherboard reached out to Comcast to ask if the company had any role in funding or soliciting these suspicious comments, but hadn't received an answer at the time of writing.