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?’”