Public comment corruption at FCC

Activists and others who worked so hard to prevent hydraulic fracturing and the New York Regional Interconnect power line in New York State, and who are still working to prevent the opening of the Competitive Ventures Power Plant and the construction of a compressor station on the Millennium Pipeline in the Town of Highland, understand the power of public comments. When enough people are willing to speak out or write about their opinions regarding controversial issues or projects, in some instances governments can be swayed, and laws or policies can be impacted.

So, if the process of publicly commenting on an important issue is corrupted, democracy is damaged, and the will of the people is potentially subverted. To New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, that appears to be what happened in the case of public comments regarding the Internet and net neutrality. Net neutrality is currently the policy in place at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which requires Internet service providers (ISP) to treat all web traffic equally; ISPs now may not charge some content providers more than others, or allow some providers to move their content on “fast lanes” while others are relegated to “slow lanes.”

Schneiderman believes that during the public comment period that began in April regarding the repeal of the net neutrality rules, hundreds of thousands of “fake” comments were submitted, often using the identities of real people from all over the country. Schneiderman says that the identities of tens of thousands of New Yorkers may have been used in this way, and he considers that a form of identity theft.

On November 29, Schneiderman announced a new website page (ag.ny.gov/fakecomments) where people can go to check to see if their names have been improperly used, and if so, consumers can give that information to the attorney general’s office.

It would be much easier to get to the bottom of this matter if the new commissioners of the FCC would respond to the nine requests for information from Schneiderman’s office about the fake comments. But, according to a press release from Schneiderman, in breaking with past practice, the FCC is declining to cooperate with the New York State Attorney General.

Clearly, New York residents have every reason to expect a federal agency to cooperate with a state attorney general who is investigating whether resident’s names were used in a way that is probably illegal and certainly immoral.

And there is another aspect of the public comments on net neutrality that needs to be addressed, and that is which public comments will actually be considered as the commissioners deliberate the issue. This year, nearly 22 million public comments were received regarding net neutrality from all over the country, eclipsing the nearly four million that were received when the public was invited to comment on the matter in 2014.

But a good many of this year’s responses came not from an actual human beings, but rather via spambots. An analysis from the Pew Research Institute found, “Of the 21.7 million comments posted, 6% were unique. The other 94% were submitted multiple times—in some cases, hundreds of thousands of times. In fact, the seven most-submitted comments (six of which argued against net neutrality regulations) comprise 38% of all the submissions over the four-month comment period.” It seems likely that if Schneiderman pursues his investigation, the anti-net neutrality side would be far more guilty of fraud than the pro side.

In any case, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has indicated that nearly all of the comments will not be considered, and that only comments that were submitted by single individuals would be considered, and then only if those comments presented new information or a reasoned legal argument.

Clearly there should be a way to insure that spambots are not allowed to skew the outcome of public comments. But to ignore the millions of people who took the time to fill out an online form and send an email, even a duplicate email, is to ignore the will of the people.

Repetition is a form of emphasis. And if enough real people are putting their electronic signatures on emails that take a position on net neutrality, the FCC should take that into account. The will of the public as expressed through public comment should be a factor in the deliberations about net neutrality.

A recent poll from Politico and The Morning Call found that 52% of registered voters support net neutrality as opposed to 18% who don’t. Pai and his fellow commissioners should consider the will of the majority in this matter. However, they probably will ignore the will of the voters, and the matter is likely to end up in court.

 

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