Net Neutrality Throws FCC’s Comment Section Into Chaos

The commission’s system was hit with a suspicious cyberattack, beset with racist rhetoric, and flooded with astroturfed comments ahead of next week’s net-neutrality vote.

Protests in Philadelphia in 2014 against the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and in favor of Federal Communications Commission regulation of Internet traffic to support net neutrality
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
May 11, 2017, 8 p.m.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion’s com­ments sec­tion is get­ting out of hand.

The com­mis­sion’s Elec­tron­ic Com­ment Fil­ing Sys­tem is the stat­utor­ily re­quired ven­ue through which cit­izens can provide their take on any and all act­ive com­mis­sion pro­ceed­ings. It is nor­mally a sleepy place, but Re­pub­lic­an FCC Chair­man Ajit Pai’s new pro­pos­al to roll back the 2015 net-neut­ral­ity or­der has de­luged the sys­tem with hun­dreds of thou­sands of com­ments.

And since last Sunday, after HBO’s John Oliv­er dir­ec­ted his view­ers to ex­press their dis­pleas­ure with Pai’s net-neut­ral­ity plans, this ex­er­cise in civic par­ti­cip­a­tion took a series of nasty turns.

It’s not just the ra­cist and ab­us­ive lan­guage be­ing hurled at Pai, an un­for­tu­nate haz­ard whenev­er an or­gan­iz­a­tion so­li­cits com­ments on­line. De­pend­ing on who you talk to, the com­ments sec­tion has also been vic­tim­ized by either a crip­pling cy­ber­at­tack or—for the con­spir­at­ori­ally minded—a false-flag op­er­a­tion con­duc­ted by the FCC it­self. And identic­al bot-gen­er­ated com­ments—most in fa­vor of Pai’s pro­pos­al—ap­pear to be flood­ing the sys­tem, threat­en­ing to drown out le­git­im­ate con­sumer feed­back.

All this has flung the FCC’s com­ments-fil­ing sys­tem in­to chaos just days be­fore a sched­uled May 18 vote on Pai’s net-neut­ral­ity pro­pos­al. For pro­gress­ive tech groups hop­ing to mo­bil­ize pub­lic opin­ion against both that plan and any even­tu­al le­gis­lat­ive com­prom­ise on net neut­ral­ity, the dis­cord seems de­lib­er­ate.

“It’s like any of these hack­ing at­tacks—like there was dur­ing the French elec­tion, like there was in our elec­tion—where the whole point is just to un­der­mine the le­git­im­acy of the sys­tem,” said Har­old Feld, a law­yer and the vice pres­id­ent of pro­gress­ive tech group Pub­lic Know­ledge. By “pulling a Putin” and mud­dling the con­ver­sa­tion, Feld be­lieves, uniden­ti­fied op­pon­ents of the FCC’s net-neut­ral­ity rules hope to de­fang any grass­roots op­pos­i­tion to a roll­back.

“I think the chair­man has a re­spons­ib­il­ity to get out there and make it very clear that he does not sup­port people try­ing to hack the pro­cess,” Feld told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Then-FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er’s 2014 net-neut­ral­ity pro­ceed­ing even­tu­ally at­trac­ted around 4 mil­lion pub­lic com­ments. The ma­jor­ity sup­por­ted some form of ad­di­tion­al reg­u­la­tion on in­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders, and in 2015 the com­mis­sion ad­op­ted rules to gov­ern ISPs like pub­lic util­it­ies. At the time, Wheel­er touted the massive num­ber of com­ments as proof that con­sumers wanted the com­mis­sion to en­act tough net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions.

The new chair­man’s at­tempt at a net-neut­ral­ity roll­back has so far at­trac­ted around 730,000 com­ments. But while this is just a frac­tion of the com­ments col­lec­ted last time around, the pro­cess has already proven more chaot­ic.

Pai, a second-gen­er­a­tion In­di­an-Amer­ic­an, has been the tar­get of mul­tiple com­ments us­ing ra­cially charged lan­guage. One sug­ges­ted he was a “dis­grace to all In­di­ans,” while an­oth­er called for his de­port­a­tion. He also re­ceived at least two com­ments cheer­ing for his death.

Sev­er­al con­ser­vat­ive groups and me­dia out­lets, as well as Pai’s chief of staff, Mat­thew Berry, have pub­licly called out the charged rhet­or­ic. Even the In­ter­net As­so­ci­ation, a D.C.-based trade group op­posed to Pai’s pro­pos­al, re­leased a state­ment on Thursday con­demning the “use of hate­ful or threat­en­ing lan­guage” by neut­ral­ity ad­voc­ates.

But while Pai’s de­fend­ers and his staff push back against the at­tacks, they’ve spoken less about sev­er­al oth­er prob­lems fa­cing the FCC’s com­ments sec­tion.

When the com­ments-fil­ing sys­tem re­peatedly stuttered on Sunday night, many at­trib­uted it to a surge of pro-neut­ral­ity traffic in the wake of Oliv­er’s HBO show that had just aired. But on Monday, the com­mis­sion re­leased a brief state­ment claim­ing it had been the tar­get of a dis­trib­uted deni­al-of-ser­vice at­tack, mak­ing it “dif­fi­cult for le­git­im­ate com­menters to ac­cess and file with the FCC.”

Con­spir­acy the­or­ies sprang up in­stantly. Evan Greer, the cam­paign dir­ect­or for net-neut­ral­ity act­iv­ist group Fight for the Fu­ture, said the group was con­cerned that the com­mis­sion’s story was “in­ten­tion­ally mis­lead­ing,” and sug­ges­ted the FCC was try­ing to hide be­hind a made-up cy­ber­at­tack as an ex­cuse for al­low­ing its web­site to crash un­der the weight of Oliv­er’s audi­ence.

Demo­crat­ic Sens. Ron Wyden and Bri­an Schatz sent a let­ter to Pai on Tues­day de­mand­ing a full ac­count­ing of the al­leged cy­ber­at­tack. Schatz told Na­tion­al Journ­al that, for now, he won’t com­ment on wheth­er he be­lieves the com­mis­sion is be­ing en­tirely forth­com­ing. “I’ll with­hold judg­ment un­til I hear from the FCC,” the sen­at­or said, adding that “people need to be able to file com­ments no mat­ter what” and that it was im­port­ant to de­term­ine how the cy­ber­at­tack took place so it could be pre­ven­ted in the fu­ture.

FCC spokes­man Mark Wig­field did not re­spond to ques­tions on wheth­er the com­mis­sion would re­lease more evid­ence of the at­tack. Wig­field told The Wash­ing­ton Post earli­er this week that the com­mis­sion had up­dated to a cloud ser­vice that should prove more re­si­li­ent.

Adding to the tur­moil is a sud­den surge of hun­dreds of thou­sands of identic­al com­ments in fa­vor of Pai’s pro­pos­al. So far around 130,000 com­ments—nearly one-fifth of the total—lament the “un­pre­ced­en­ted reg­u­lat­ory power the Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion im­posed on the in­ter­net” and urge the FCC to en­act “light-touch” rules as Pai has sug­ges­ted. Tech out­let ZDNet reached out to sev­er­al of the al­leged com­menters, all of whom said they did not send the re­marks in ques­tion. That sug­gests the use of a spam bot to flood the FCC with il­le­git­im­ate com­ments.

Brent Skorup, a re­search fel­low at the free-mar­ket Mer­catus In­sti­tute and a mem­ber of the FCC’s Broad­band De­ploy­ment Ad­vis­ory Com­mit­tee, said he was “sur­prised” that the FCC’s com­ment sys­tem didn’t pre­vent bot activ­ity. But, he ad­ded, it’s not un­usu­al for fed­er­al agen­cies to move slowly on IT up­grades.

The war over net-neut­ral­ity com­ments may have little prac­tic­al im­pact on the com­mis­sion’s de­cision to move ahead with the roll­back. In a press call last month, FCC of­fi­cials said they wouldn’t take the total volume of com­ments for or against in­to ac­count, fo­cus­ing in­stead on leg­al and tech­nic­al ar­gu­ments.

For Skorup, that’s a wel­come change from what happened un­der the last chair­man. “It’s a fic­tion that these form com­ments sig­ni­fy any­thing that the FCC is ever go­ing to read,” he said. “I think the pre­vi­ous FCC mak­ing a big deal about the num­ber of com­ments en­cour­ages this sort of gam­ing of the sys­tem.”

Feld ad­mits that there’s little chance of chan­ging Pai’s mind through a storm of pro-neut­ral­ity com­ments. But he dis­misses the no­tion that the com­ments don’t mat­ter, par­tic­u­larly giv­en the ex­press in­terest by Cap­it­ol Hill Re­pub­lic­ans to craft a le­gis­lat­ive net-neut­ral­ity com­prom­ise in tan­dem with the FCC’s ac­tions.

“The grass­roots folks and the pub­lic have a real seat at the table and real power in this—not so much in what Pai and [Re­pub­lic­an Com­mis­sion­er Mi­chael] O’Ri­elly are go­ing to do, but in how this de­bate is go­ing to evolve,” Feld said. “That’s why you have people who are mo­tiv­ated to try to hack the pro­cess and del­e­git­im­ize it. Be­cause if you’re a Re­pub­lic­an in Con­gress, it’s a lot easi­er to dis­miss this stuff if you think, ‘Well, who knows who the real com­menters are?’”

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