The Trump administration and its embattled FCC commissioner are on a mission to roll back the pro-net neutrality rules approved during the Obama years, despite the fact that most Americans support those safeguards. But there is a large number of entities that do not: telecom companies, their lobbyists, and hordes of bots.
Of all the more than 22 million comments submitted to the FCC website and through the agency's API found that only 3,863,929 comments were "unique," according to a new analysis by Gravwell, a data analytics company. The rest? A bunch of copy-pasted comments, most of them likely by automated astroturfing bots, almost all of them—curiously—against net neutrality.
"Using our (admittedly) simple classification, over 95 percent of the organic comments are in favor of Title II regulation," Corey Thuen, the founder of Gravwell, told Motherboard in an email.
Thuen was referring to a section of the Communications Act that imposes regulations designed to protect net neutrality. In 2015, the FCC voted to reclassify internet broadband as a "telecommunications service" under Title II, effectively institutionalizing net neutrality, handing a win to open internet advocates, and a loss to big telecom.
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That historic vote is referenced in the two comments that were sent the most by bots. This one was sent to the FCC 1.2 million times:
The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation.\n\nI urge the Federal Communications Commission to end the bureaucratic regulatory overreach of the internet known as Title II and restore the bipartisan light-touch regulatory consensus that enabled the internet to flourish for more than 20 years.\n\nThe plan currently under consideration at the FCC to repeal Obama's Title II power grab is a positive step forward and will help to promote a truly free and open internet for everyone.\n
In case you are wondering, the "\n" strings as well as other weird symbols that might appear in other comments are alternative representation of certain special characters, or line breaks, according to Thuen. The comment above was already spotted as coming from bots in May. (Gravwell published some of the data they crunched in a spreadsheet in case you are curious.)
"The quotation characters are the Windows smart quotes, meaning that someone generated the bulk uploads using a Microsoft package (like Word or Excel)," he said.
This other one was sent 1,096,617 times in August alone:
In 2015, Chairman Tom Wheeler's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposed restrictive Title II, utility-style regulations under the guise of an "open internet." Not only have these regulations inhibited innovation in the internet ecosystem, they hurt taxpayers and consumers by expanding the regulatory reach of the FCC and limiting investment in internet infrastructure. We cannot allow this revolutionary tool to be bogged down with excessive government interference.\n \nIt is past time for the FCC, an agency that is funded by American taxpayers, to free the internet of burdensome regulations. By rolling back the misguided 2015 regulations we can restore an unrestricted and truly open internet. I thank the Commissioners for considering these comments during the reply period.
That means a grand total of 10 percent of all comments about net neutrality the FCC received were these two comments posted over and over.
Gizmodo found that the origin of the first comment quoted above was likely the Center for Individual Freedom, a conservative advocacy group. In this case, CFIF claimed that the comment was filed by people using a form on the organization's website. These type of comments were likely submitted through the FCC's public comment system API, which allows people to submit comments in bulk.
"Seeing a clear difference of opinion between bulk submitted comments vs those that came in via the FCC comment page we're forced to conclude that either the nature of submission method has some direct correlation with political opinion, or someone is telling lies on the internet," Thuen wrote.
The exact breakdown of anti-net neutrality and pro-net neutrality comments is not definitive, according to Thuen. He admitted that their classification for now is "rudimentary," and that's why he's searching for researchers and analysts who want to collaborate in analyzing the data further. One of the reason why it was hard to do machine learning training or automated classification of anti-net neutrality comments, however, is that "simply because they were that scarce," Thuen wrote in his blog post.
To be fair, some pro-net neutrality people also used bots. But according to their analysis, Thuen and his team couldn't find that many, and they were easier to spot.
"Those bots that were in favor of regulation were often very obvious in their behavior," Thuen told me. "They submitted comments with text like 'I am in favor of strong net neutrality. Sincerely, James Jones' 848 times. They simply substituted their names, like Patricia Johnson, James Davis, etc. The developers of anti-regulation bots appear more sophisticated."
Some bots are very easy to spot. For example, Thuen found that over 1 million comments submitted in July were from purported @pornhub.com email accounts. Perhaps, these have something to do with Pornhub's pro-net neutrality push, as the vast majority of those appeared to be positive, according to Thuen. .
Unfortunately, the data available publicly is limited. For example, the FCC hasn't released the web server logs or IP addresses of all comments (and it's fighting in court not to do that). Until then, it's hard to say who is behind each bot, or if the same operators are behind different, recurring comments.
"The data itself doesn't really hold those answers," Thuen said.
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