Bots or Not, FCC Refuses to Delay Net Neutrality Vote

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Susan Walsh/AP File Photo

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Despite increasing concerns over the integrity of the public comment process, the agency will vote as scheduled.

The Federal Communications Commission will move forward with a controversial vote to deregulate the internet despite lawmakers urging the agency hold off amid claims that millions of public comments regarding the policy change came from online bots, an agency spokesperson confirmed.

In a letter sent Monday, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and 27 Senate Democrats called on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to reschedule the vote on his proposal to dismantle the Obama-era regulations that protect net neutrality, citing concerns that the public response database is “replete with fake or fraudulent comments.”

“We believe that your proposed action may be based on an incomplete understanding of the public record in this proceeding,” lawmakers wrote. They requested the FCC investigate claims that bots were responsible for potentially submitting hundreds of thousands of remarks during the public comment period.

An FCC spokesperson told Nextgov commissioners will proceed with the vote as scheduled on Dec. 14. With Republicans controlling three of the five seats at the commission, the measure is widely expected to pass.

The FCC received more than 22 million comments weighing in on the net neutrality debate between April and October, with many using boilerplate language from grassroots campaigns on both sides of the issue. In November, the Pew Research Center determined 38 percent of all submissions were duplicates of the same seven comments, including one campaign’s message that net neutrality advocates submitted more than 2.8 million times.

But researchers also found that millions of comments in favors of repealing the regulations were likely generated by spambots.

In his analysis, data scientist Jeff Kao attributed 1.3 million comments to a single pro-repeal campaign that used natural language generation to submit remarks that appeared unique but in reality followed the same basic template. Kao estimated less than 800,000 of the total comments submitted to the FCC were truly unique.

An investigation led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found many comments originated from fake names and addresses, while “hundreds of thousands” of others impersonated the identities of actual American citizens, violating New York state law.

“These reports raise serious concerns as to whether the record the FCC is currently relying on has been tampered with,” lawmakers wrote. “Without additional information … the FCC cannot conduct a thorough and fair evaluation of the public’s views on this topic, and should not move forward with a vote.”

Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called the agency’s unwillingness to assist law enforcement in investigating commenter identity fraud “unacceptable,” and derided the agency’s lack of public hearings on net neutrality.

“While I fundamentally disagree with the merits of the FCC’s proposal, what is equally concerning is the lack of integrity to the FCC’s process that has led to this point,” she said in a statement.

This is not the first time the FCC’s comment section has come under fire in the net neutrality debate. The agency’s site crashed in May after “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver encouraged viewers to comment in favor of net neutrality.

FCC officials said the outage stemmed from multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks that overwhelmed its servers. The Government Accountability Office said it would look into the cyberattack after lawmakers called for an investigation in August.