FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been asking the American people since late April to comment on his proposal to deregulate the open internet by leaving a comment on the commission’s website. But what should have been a relatively straightforward public comment process has become a trainwreck.
On Monday, the day after comedian John Oliver implored his viewers to leave a pro-regulation, pro–net neutrality comment, the FCC claimed it had suffered a DDoS (denial of service) attack that crashed its website. Two days later, a ZDNet report revealed that more 58,000 anti-net neutrality comments left on the site used the exact same language, although the origin of the text appears unknown.
People contacted by ZDNet and the Verge who supposedly left those comments were unaware that they had done so, suggesting that someone is using a bot to manufacture thousands of comments. In total, the agency has received more than 550,000 comments so far. Representatives for the FCC did not respond to a request for comment, although the agency’s practice is not to discuss individual public comments.
The public comment portion of the FCC net neutrality debate left a huge impact on the policymaking process during the last round of discussion, in 2014. Nearly 4 million people participated in the public comment at the time, and the overwhelming majority of “unique” comments — those not directed from a template form — appeared to be in favor of net neutrality.
Harold Feld, a telecom policy expert who is the senior vice president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge, explains that the FCC public comment process is akin to constituent calls to members of Congress.
“For a technical, legal matter, the FCC makes its decisions on the merits. Even if you get 1 million comments advocating one position, the agency is bound by the law to do what it’s supposed to,” Feld says. “But public comment is important for a bunch of reasons. It makes it clear that this is a policy the agency should take seriously, and it shows that these things rebound in the political sphere.”
John Oliver, whose 2014 segment on the FCC and net neutrality has been viewed nearly 13 million times on YouTube, was credited with helping to drive popular opinion on the issue and crashing the FCC website.
Conservative critics point out that this time around, Oliver appears to have driven some fake commenters and copy-pasted comment language. The numbers of those comments, however, are easily dwarfed by the 58,000-strong anti–net neutrality bots and can be traced back to form letters circulated by pro–net neutrality groups like Fight for the Future.
And while the FCC claimed in a statement that it had suffered a DDoS attack, the agency has yet to show any evidence for the claim, prompting a letter from Democratic lawmakers demanding to see the proof.
In 2014, internet providers and the trade associations that represent them were linked to DCI Group, a political lobbying and consulting firm with a reputation for “astroturfing” tactics, which give the corporate-backed political groups the imprimatur of grassroots support.
DCI Group currently lobbies on behalf of Verizon, a net neutrality opponent, having taken at least $250,000 over 2016 and 2017 from the telecom giant for lobbying services, according to numbers from the Center for Responsive Politics.
When reached for comment, DCI Group spokesman Craig Stevens said in a statement that the firm doesn’t comment about its clients or the work it does for them. However, he said“we abhor and avoid the use of bots or other similar tactics because they weaken the overall policy debate, as well as citizens’ ability to engage in the democratic process.” A spokesperson for Verizon declined to comment.
Feld, who was troubled by the proliferation of bots in the net neutrality public comments, stresses that using bots tend to accomplish the reverse of whatever is intended.
“You get what I like to call the ‘regulatory Streisand Effect,’” Feld says. “The more people resort to these kinds of [astroturfing] tactics, the more they draw attention to the policy fight, and the more people become engaged.”