Net neutrality, the concept that aims to ensure equal access to the internet for consumers by barring internet providers from discriminating among content and applications, is a hotly debated topic.
But it seems suspicious that interest in the topic has risen more than five-fold in the last three years. It should also raise concerns that the Federal Communications Commission has received nearly 450,000 comments on the topic from Russian email addresses.
So far, the FCC has received more than 21 million comments on its proposal to end the neutrality rules. When the rules were contemplated in 2014, the commission received 4 million comments. Of this year’s comments, more than half have come from temporary or duplicate emails, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. Nearly 8 million comments appear to be fake.
Given this mess, there is good reason for the FCC to slow the process down and sort out what real American citizens think about the proposed rule change. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai seems unlikely to take this prudent path, instead holding a vote to gut net neutrality on Thursday as scheduled.
This is a mistake.
We know why large internet providers, like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, want to do away with the neutrality rules. They want to make more money.
But the FCC doesn’t just represent corporate interests. It is also supposed to ensure that the best interests of American citizens are upheld.
Given the huge volume of dubious comments filed in this case, there is no way for the commission to gauge the true sentiment of the American people. That’s why sorting the fake public comments from the real should take precedence over a rushed vote.
“Given both the reports that fraudulent bots overwhelmingly participated in undermining the public comment period, and the significant weight of the FCC’s upcoming decision and its potential adverse impact on the market, I strongly encourage Chairman Pai to delay this week’s net neutrality vote so the American people can have their voices accurately and thoroughly heard,” said Sen. Angus King, one of 27 senators who sent a letter to Pai raising concerns about the public comment process.
“This is a matter of enormous importance with significant implications for our entire economy, and therefore merits the most thorough, deliberate, and thoughtful process that can be provided. Unfortunately, the process thus far in this important matter hasn’t come close to meeting that standard,” King added.
Rep. Chellie Pingree has also called on the FCC to delay the vote to fully investigate the fake comments.
The FCC, under former President Barack Obama, decreed in 2015 that internet services are telecom services and therefore must be equally available to all.
The FCC earlier this year put out a notice that it intended to do away with net neutrality in exchange for a “light touch” regulatory approach. Last month, the FCC shared details of its plans, which would allow internet providers to control what content and sites their customers can access and at what cost.
Groups ranging from the Maine State Library and the American Library Association to Google and Amazon oppose the rule change. Their concerns are enough to warrant a closer look at the FCC’s proposal. The flood of fake comments demands further scrutiny, before a vote is taken.
According to the Pew study, only 6 percent of the comments received by the FCC were unique, the rest were duplicates. Seven of the most submitted comments (six of which opposed net neutrality) comprised 38 percent of the total comments received. More than 7.75 million comments, with nearly identical wording, were submitted from email domains attributed to FakeMailGenerator.com. And, nearly 445,000 comments came from Russian email addresses.
The FCC owes it to the American public to fully investigate this situation to determine what went wrong with its comment process so it can reassure the public that it heard what they, and not fake commenters, had to say.
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