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Bots Are Fighting for Control of the FCC’s Comments Section

Ajit Pai. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As Ajit Pai burrows deeper into the pocket of the telecom industry by working to repeal net-neutrality protections, the FCC is pretending to care about public opinion by opening itself up to public comment on the matter. After technically opening up comments last week, but burying the net-neutrality measure to comment on deep within the FCC’s website, television host John Oliver launched, a simple URL redirect that made it easy for people to leave feedback with the commission. Shortly thereafter, the FCC’s website crashed, although it denied that net-neutrality commenting was the cause.

But Oliver is not the only one hoping to mobilize a force. Anti-net-neutrality supporters of unknown origin are also flooding the site. According to ZDnet, more than 128,000 identical comments have already been left on the site, all echoing the sentiment that, “The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation.”

More curiously, the names attached to each of the comments appear to be fake. Or rather, they belong to real people who did not actually leave said remarks. Commenters contacted by ZDnet and the Verge denied involvement, some not even being familiar with the concept of net neutrality. According to the Verge, the comments can be traced back to the Center for Individual Freedom, which put out a press release today featuring language similar to the comments.

Still, that doesn’t quite explain how people with no familiarity with net neutrality are leaving comments. That can be attributed to the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System. The ECFS has a public API that allows anyone with coding know-how to automate comment submission. In theory, this is so that efforts like John Oliver’s or the CFIC’s can create easy ways for people to express their opinion to the FCC. It also, however, allows more dishonest people to fully automate the process. It wouldn’t be too hard to hack together a script that swaps out the identifying information of commenters and pumps out hundreds of thousands of comments. That’s likely what’s going on here — someone with a database of names and addresses is slapping those on a boilerplate letter and passing it on to the government.

Assuming that all of these comments are coming from the same source, all the FCC needs to do is revoke the unknown coder’s API key — the unique string of letters and numbers that allows it to access the FCC’s system. At the same time, FCC leadership has signaled that it really doesn’t give a shit about public opinion at all, and intend to roll the Title II order back regardless, making this whole thing an exercise in futility.

Bots Are Fighting for Control of the FCC’s Comments Section