As the war over the fate of America's free and open internet lumbers on, it appears that opponents of net neutrality will do anything in their power to turn control of the internet over to massive telecom companies—including committing fraud. As detailed in a letter sent to the FCC Thursday morning, people are pissed that their personal information was used without their knowledge to post anti-net neutrality comments to the FCC's website, which includes at least two people who are recently deceased.
Late last month, the FCC opened up its website for comment on "Restoring Internet Freedom," an anti-net neutrality proposal that was advanced by FCC chairman Ajit Pai and has found wide support among conservative members of Congress. In the weeks that followed, the FCC's website has been flooded with over 2.5 million comments about the proposal.
"Whoever is behind this stole our names and addresses, publicly exposed our private information without our permission."
Yet upon closer inspection, some 500,000 of these comments are anti-net neutrality copypasta and bear the telltale signature of a bot (such as perfectly identical formatting and names listed in alphabetical order). Moreover, dozens of people whose names are associated with these comments have come out of the woodwork to say that they never posted these comments and are in fact strongly in favor of net neutrality.
On Thursday, 14 people who say their identity was inappropriately used to oppose net neutrality without their permission wrote a letter demanding that Pai and the FCC open an investigation into the alleged astroturfing campaign.
"Whoever is behind this stole our names and addresses, publicly exposed our private information without our permission, and used our identities to file a political statement we did not sign onto," the letter reads. "While it may be convenient for you to ignore this, given that it was done in an attempt to support your position, it cannot be the case that the FCC moves forward on such a major public debate without properly investigating this known attack."
It is uncertain how these individuals' personal information was obtained, but it appears that a significant portion of the names and addresses used to post these comments were culled from government files stolen during a number of different network breaches over the years. Many of the addresses associated with these people's names are outdated, and according to the digital rights group Fight for the Future, in at least two cases a comment was filed to the FCC's website by people who recently died.
The organization behind this anti-net neutrality spam is uncertain, as is the exact number of fake comments. To this end, Fight for the Future launched comcastroturf.com, a website where anyone can enter their name to see if their personal information was used for FCC comments without their knowledge. This website quickly drew Comcast's attention, which tried to shut the website down earlier this week.
The text from the boilerplate fake comments appears to be drawn from a 2010 press release from a conservative, anti-net neutrality group called Center for Individual Freedom. Others suspect that the telecom lobby American Commitment, which used misleading emails to solicit nearly 2 million anti-net neutrality comments in 2014, may be behind the fraudulent comments.
In any case, the FCC hasn't yet suggested that it will conduct an investigation into the alleged astroturfing. In light of this hands off approach, fourteen victims of the fake comments signed a strongly worded letter to Pai calling for the chairman to disclose any information the agency has about the group behind these comments, launch an investigation into the legality of posting these comments, and notify everyone who may have been impacted by the attack.
Although fourteen names is a relatively small cohort of the potentially thousands of people who were impacted, Fight for the Future confirmed to Motherboard that it has received "hundreds" of reports from people who claim their names and addresses were used without their permission. The group says these people were not included in the letter because it is still verifying their claims.
"This letter was something we put together quickly with people who were furious that their personal information had been used and wanted to do something immediately," Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, told me in an email. "We will continue adding signers to the letter as we hear back from more people who we have been able to verify have had their name and address used to file a misleading anti-net neutrality comment without their consent."