In a recent article, BuzzFeed dug into the issue of the FCC receiving millions of bogus comments in the last two rounds of the net neutrality docket. During the 2015 net neutrality comment period, the agency received over 4 million comments. Many of these were legitimate comments such as many that were driven by HBO’s John Oliver, who prompted people to comment in favor of net neutrality.
When the new FCC wanted to reverse the original net neutrality order they had to again open up the docket for public comment. This second time the FCC got over 20 million comments. The comments were so voluminous that the FCC website crashed in May 2017.
There were fake comments filed on both sides of the issue. On the pro-net neutrality side were 8 million nearly identical comments that were tied to email addresses from FakeMailGenerator.com. There were another million comments from people with @pornhub.com email addresses. On the anti-net neutrality side Buzzfeed identified several organizations that uploaded millions of comments using names, addresses and email addresses that came from a major data breach. These fake comments were generated on behalf of real people who had no idea their name was being used in the FCC proceeding. The fake filings included comments from some people who had died and also some anti-net neutrality comments from a few Democrats in the House of Representatives who clearly were pro-net neutrality.
While the FCC’s net neutrality dockets received the largest number of fake comments, there are fake comments being filed in other FCC dockets and false comments are being made for legislation at state legislatures.
As somebody who often comments on FCC dockets, the fake comments give me heartburn. Flooding a docket with fake comments makes it likely that legitimate comments are not read or considered. What might be the most interesting thing about the net neutrality docket is that in both cases it was clear the FCC COmmissioners had already decided how they were going to vote – so the fake comments had no real impact. But most FCC dockets are not partisan. For example, there were a lot of fake comments filed in the docket that was considering changing the rules for cable cards – the devices that allow people to avoid paying for the cable company settop boxes. That kind of docket is not partisan and is more typical of the kinds of issues that the FCC has to wangle with.
Hopefully, legal action will be taken against the bad actors that were identified in the net neutrality filings. There are several companies that have been formed for the express purposes of generating large volumes of comments in government dockets. There is nothing wrong in working with organizations to generate comments to politicians. It’s almost a definition of the first amendment if AARP galvanizes members to comment against changes in social security. But it’s a perversion of democracy when fake comments are generated to try to influence the political process.
Fighting this issue was not made any easier when the current FCC under Ajit Pai ignored public records requests in 2017 that wanted to look deeper at the underlying fake comments. After a lawsuit was filed the FCC eventually responded to public records requests that led to investigations like the one described in the Buzzfeed article.
There are probably ways for the FCC and other agencies to restrict the volume of fake comments. For example, the FCC might end the process of allowing for large quantities of comments to be filed on a bulk basis. But federal agencies have to be careful to not kill legitimate comments. It’s not unusual for an organization to encourage members to file, and they often do so using the same language in multiple filings.
This is another example of how technology can be used for negative purposes – in essence, the FCC was hacked in these dockets. As long as there is a portal for citizens to make comments it’s likely that there will be fake comments made. Fake comments are often being made outside the government process and fake reviews are a big problem for web sites like Amazon and Yelp. We need to find a way to stop the fake comments from overwhelming the real comments.