Tens of thousands of fake, form-generated or hate-filled public comments have flooded the U.S. Federal Communications Commission as Republican Chairman Ajit Pai works to roll back the government’s net neutrality rules.
The vicious attacks in some of those submissions — combined with questions about their authenticity — have government transparency experts worried that the public’s input might be drowned out as the FCC begins its process.
By Wednesday afternoon, the FCC had received and published more than 555,000 comments from consumers across the country, who are divided sharply over Pai’s efforts to scrap rules imposed during the Obama administration that subject internet providers, including AT&T and Verizon, to utility-like regulation.
But comments on both sides of the debate appear to be suspicious. For example, roughly 58,000 comments sent to the FCC this week have the same exact text criticizing former President Barack Obama. Their messages blast the net neutrality rules imposed under Democrats’ watch for “smothering innovation” and “damaging the American economy.” And some of those comments seem to be fake: A number of comments’ authors have since told reporters that they never actually contacted the FCC this week.
Meanwhile, net neutrality advocates appear to have mounted a campaign of their own. Nearly 30,000 comments sent to the agency so far share the same exact line in support of strong regulation, emphasizing they “don't want ISPs to have the power to block websites, slow them down, give some sites an advantage over others, or split the Internet into ‘fast lanes.’”
But those comments seem to have been generated through an online form put together by liberal groups Fight for the Future, Free Press and Demand Progress.
Other who have urged Pai to keep the current rules on the books have used fake names, including Jesus Christ and even John Oliver, who on Sunday encouraged viewers of his show, “Last Week Tonight,” to write regulators in support of net neutrality. A few net neutrality comments even have attacked or threatened Pai directly.
The tone of the debate already has troubled some open-government advocates.
“Any time you see people abusing the public comment systems by putting abuse into them, or by trying to do automated posting of comments that are not actually representative of an individual choosing to make a comment, then it threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the process,” said Alexander Howard, the deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation.
Howard told Recode that there are always folks — from comment rounds to town halls — who “scream sometimes” and cause distraction. But, he added, “My concern is that the claims of automation and maybe even the existence of it, [plus] the filings that are just abuse, will be used to obscure the scale and participation of people who are filing comments in good faith. And that should not be allowed to happen.”
In many ways, though, the early free-for-all is as old as the debate over net neutrality itself.
Before the FCC adopted its rules in 2015, the agency’s leader at the time, Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler, fielded nearly four million comments from concerned internet users. Some of the messages calling for strong net neutrality rules included insults and other taunts; others opposed Wheeler and had been organized by groups like American Commitment, which has ties to powerful conservatives, like the Koch Brothers. (That group later faced criticism on Capitol Hill for inundating lawmakers with comments from voters who potentially didn’t live in their districts.)
The FCC did not immediately comment on the state of the net neutrality debate. But Pai’s chief of staff, Matthew Berry, took particular aim at net neutrality supporters in a tweet on Wednesday.
Very sad to see racist, hate-filled attacks against Chairman Pai being submitted to the FCC. https://t.co/sZSJDHKr0F— Matthew Berry (@matthewberryfcc) May 10, 2017
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.