'Net Neutrality' Comment System Failed to Screen Out Phony Messages

Over the summer, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission was inundated with nearly 22 million comments both for and against Net Neutrality. A study of the comments—funded by a pro-cable and pro-telecom alliance—shows the difficulty in discerning the fraudulent ones.

FCC Net Neutrality

A study of 21.8 million comments submitted to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on the Trump administration’s plan to remove regulations from cable, telecom and broadband providers found that the lack of any user authentication left the system open to abuse and left any conclusions based on the data about public sentiments on the issue open to criticism.

By one measure focusing on whether the comments submitted to the FCC’s Electronic Comments Filing System (ECFS) are associated with a U.S. address and not “illegitimate” domain sentiment appears to favor repeal of the Obama-era regulations that restrict broadband providers, according to Emprata, the analytics firm that conducted the study. Broadband for America, the cable- and telecom-industry group that funded the study, publicized this aspect of the analysis.

However, almost all the comments supporting the broadband providers’ position—as well as the vast majority of comments supporting current regulations—are from millions of form letters generated online.

Focusing on just the unique comments—those statements from individuals and not from online automated systems—reveals overwhelming support for leaving the restrictions on broadband providers in place—the so-called “Net Neutrality” position—by more than 1.5 million comments to less than 24,000 arguing for repeal of the regulations.

Overall, because there was no verification of comments in the ECFS system, the veracity of most comments cannot be verified, the analytics firm stated in the report.

“The lack of user authentication by ECFS makes it difficult to determine ‘genuine’ comment submissions,” Emprata stated in the analysis. “As a result, it is very difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from the comments found in the docket. Any conclusions that one might draw from the data would be based on the subset of the data that they consider to be ‘real’.”

Emprata did not respond to requests for comment by phone or email.

The fight over whether broadband providers should be classified as a common carrier under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, rather than information carriers, has intensified over the past decade and a half.

The Trump administration—especially FCC chairman Ajit Pai—has committed to rolling back the regulations, while content providers—such as Google, Netflix, Amazon and most Internet startups, who profit from the current regulations—and tech-savvy consumers have criticized the efforts to reclassify broadband providers.

The nearly 22 million comments submitted to the ECFS underscore the efforts on both sides to influence the decision. In addition, fraud has become a major concern in the comment process.

While the pro-ISP Broadband for America group has pointed to international comments and those using addresses associated with a fake email generation service as likely fraudulent, prior evidence indicated that comments supporting the repeal of the Title II designation had used the identity of people who did not support the repeal.

“The vast majority of the comments support open internet principles, but the analysis clearly shows there is strong concern about the damage done by Title II,” Broadband for America stated in its position on the analysis. “This underscores the need for Congressional action.”

Net Neutrality supporters of the current regulations on broadband providers pointed to the overwhelming number of unique comments favoring Title II as proof that individuals support the current regime.

Nearly 1.8 million unique comments were against repeal of the regulations, compared to 24,000 for the repeal, stressed Evan Greer, campaign director for pro-Internet-freedom group Fight for the Future.

“So the telecom industry’s own study essentially shows what nearly all other polling on this issue has shown: that they are getting trounced when it comes to public opinion, and people from across the political spectrum overwhelmingly agree that they don’t want their ISPs to have control over what they can see and do on the Internet,” she said in a statement to eWEEK.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...