Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
It’s no surprise that the GOP-dominated Federal Communications Commission announced plans Tuesday to jettison Obama-era net neutrality rules, which barred internet gatekeepers from imposing a matrix of new fees pegged to user habits.
In typical corporate double-speak, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that removing price-gouging barriers would “benefit consumers,” because, “instead of [websites] being flyspecked by lawyers and bureaucrats, the internet would once again thrive under engineers and entrepreneurs.”
Pai’s pro-consumer defense of corporate greed is hardly new. It’s an old trope honed by generations of Washington consultants selling unpopular policies as benefiting the public interest. But what’s different this time around is Pai’s FCC has been trolled by tens of thousands of fake pro-industry comments filed online, which the FCC chairman is citing as part of his public relations effort to repeal net neutrality.
This is the Washington equivalent of waving the propaganda flag put online by Russian trolls in 2016’s election. And just like the GOP last year, or others who denied social media messaging had a serious impact, Pai’s FCC doesn’t care if the process was rigged or the target of fake lobbying-via-identity theft.
“The process the FCC has employed to consider potentially sweeping alterations to current net neutrality rules has been corrupted by the fraudulent use of Americans’ identities — and the FCC has been unwilling to assist my office in our efforts to investigate this unlawful activity,” wrote New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in an open letter posted on Medium.com Tuesday.
“Specifically, for six months my office has been investigating who perpetrated a massive scheme to corrupt the FCC’s notice and comment process through the misuse of enormous numbers of real New Yorkers’ and other Americans’ identities,” he said. “Such conduct likely violates state law — yet the FCC has refused multiple requests for crucial evidence in its sole possession that is vital to permit that law enforcement investigation to proceed.”
Put bluntly, not only has the FCC been trolled by a pro-corporate marketing campaign based on identity theft and impersonating citizens, but the FCC is obstructing the New York State attorney general from investigating what is a serious and major crime.
The “massive scheme” to fraudulently lobby the FCC on gutting net neutrality protections was first reported by theVerge.com, a technology website, in May 2017. As Verge reported, popular late-night television host John Oliver encouraged his “viewers to post to a public comment thread with support for strong regulation, and a massive number of people did so. But many others appeared to have a different point of view.”
Verge noticed that tens of thousands of the electronic comments opposed to net neutrality were identical.
“‘The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation,’ read thousands of identical comments posted this week, seemingly by different concerned individuals,” Verge reported. “The comment goes on to give a vigorous defense of deregulation, calling the rules a ‘power grab’ and saying the rollback represents ‘a positive step forward.’ By midday Tuesday, the thread was inundated with versions of the comment. A search of the duplicated text found more than 58,000 results as of press time, with 17,000 of those posted in the last 24 hours alone.”
Verge reporters contacted some of the people submitting identical comments and found they did not write them, nor did the impersonated authors have any idea who sent them. Then Verge went fishing for explanations, or at least something approximating a plausible explanation.
“It’s unclear who may have orchestrated the comments,” it wrote. “A line of the language used in the comment, specifically about the ‘unprecedented regulatory power [of] the Obama administration,’ has some resemblance to a 2010 press release from the Center for Individual Freedom, a conservative, anti-net neutrality group.”
When Verge contacted the group, its spokesman said that, yes, it “is asking our supporters and other activists across the nation to submit comments,” and that “our messaging on this general issue has been consistent for nearly a decade.” Verge theorized that a pro-industry group turned the center’s message into lobbying spam, which the center didn’t discount. “Your question about the possibility of someone corrupting the effort is something we need to look into,” a spokesperson said.
Schneiderman said the submission of thousands of fabricated comments violates the spirit of representative government and letter of the law on identity theft.
“In May 2017, researchers and reporters discovered that the FCC’s public comment process was being corrupted by the submission of enormous numbers of fake comments concerning the possible repeal of net neutrality rules,” he wrote. “In doing so, the perpetrator or perpetrators attacked what is supposed to be an open public process by attempting to drown out and negate the views of the real people, businesses, and others who honestly commented on this important issue.”
“Worse, while some of these fake comments used made up names and addresses, many misused the real names and addresses of actual people as part of the effort to undermine the integrity of the comment process. That’s akin to identity theft, and it happened on a massive scale,” Schneiderman continued. “My office analyzed the fake comments and found that tens of thousands of New Yorkers may have had their identities misused in this way. (Indeed, analysis showed that, in all, hundreds of thousands of Americans likely were victimized in the same way, including tens of thousands per state in California, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and possibly others.) Impersonation and other misuse of a person’s identity violates New York law, so my office launched an investigation.”
The FCC’s response to Schneiderman’s inquiries is what one would expect from the Trump administration—ignoring anything that clashes with its political goals.
But this quagmire goes deeper. The FCC’s Pai is siding with telecom companies that want to gouge consumers (just compare broadband costs in the U.S. to overseas), and turning a blind eye to lobbying fabrications that corrupt a public process—federal rule making. This shadowy behavior also runs counter to notable public support to keep net neutrality, Schneiderman said.
“This [New York] investigation isn’t about the substantive issues concerning net neutrality. For my part, I have long publicly advocated for strong net neutrality rules under the Title II of the Communications Act, and studies show that the overwhelming majority of Americans who took the time to write public comments to the FCC about the issue feel the same way while a very small minority favor repeal,” the New York attorney general said. “It’s about the right to control one’s own identity and prevent the corruption of a process designed to solicit the opinion of real people and institutions. Misuse of identity online by the hundreds of thousands should concern everyone — for and against net neutrality, New Yorker or Texan, Democrat or Republican.”
But this is the Trump era, where pursuit of corporate profits is the government’s most pressing purpose. If that means fabricating tens of thousands of online public comments in 2017—so be it. In another eyebrow-raising way, industry insiders wielding new technologies have hijacked a democratic process and the federal official in charge, the FCC’s Pai, couldn’t care less.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).