The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday swam in a sea of nearly 22 million comments after a deadline passed for the public to offer opinions on an issue that could shape the internet for years to come.
But the comments may settle little. Millions of them appeared to come from robotic networks, or bots, and were the equivalent of spam mail.
The confusion generated by the fake comments left powerful telecommunications and cable companies battling with citizen advocacy groups over the true nature of public sentiment ahead of an open FCC meeting Sept. 28. Both sides said public opinion was on their side.
AT&T, the communications conglomerate, claimed that “most” of the 21.8 million comments sent to the FCC “appear to us to be fraudulent.”
“Millions of comments were generated using phony email addresses. Millions of others were generated using duplicative email or physical addresses. And still others originated overseas,” Joan Marsh, AT&T’s executive vice president of regulatory and state external affairs, wrote in a blog post.
She said that “nearly 450,000 comments were filed using Russian addresses.”
Once fake comments are weeded out, Marsh said, “the large majority of commenters” support the position of AT&T and other internet providers that could open the door to differential rates for consumers for the content they want on the internet.
I’ve seen a lot of dirty tricks out there.
Timothy Karr of advocacy group Free Press
At stake is a principle known as net neutrality that bars internet service providers from slowing down access to the internet, or forcing consumers and companies to pay more for certain types of web content.
Rules enforcing net neutrality were codified by the FCC in 2015 with strong support from then-President Barack Obama. Opponents describe it as overregulation and seek to repeal the 2-year-old rules.
Defenders of net neutrality say a rollback, as proposed by the Trump administration, could create a tiered system that would favor large internet players. They suggested that opponents may be behind the avalanche of fake comments in order to discredit the entire public airing process.
“I’ve seen a lot of dirty tricks out there,” said Timothy Karr, a senior director of Free Press, an advocacy group that supports the digital rights of internet users. He said filling the FCC mailbox with form letters and spam comments appeared to be part of a drive “to delegitimize every comment.”
A study of the FCC comments by a data company, Emprata, found that 19.4 million of the comments came from entities that filed multiple times, originated abroad or used techniques such as fake domain names typical of spam.
Emprata’s study, which was financed by Broadband for America, an industry group that represents major internet providers and cable companies, was done before the deadline for comments arrived midnight Wednesday.
The study found that some 1.77 million comments appeared to be legitimate, individually written submissions that supported keeping Obama-era rules in place, while 24,000 voiced support for repeal.
They’ve kind of steeled themselves to ignore public opinion.
Jeffrey Chester of Center for Digital Democracy
Karr asserted that 98.5 percent of those comments in support of net neutrality comprise “a very clear majority.”
Another defender of net neutrality, Jeffrey Chester, of the Center for Digital Democracy, said the Trump administration is determined to favor large internet players.
“They’ve kind of steeled themselves to ignore public opinion,” Chester said.
He said changes in viewing habits of consumers on handheld devices and away from cable television has put financial pressure on the large telecommunications and cable companies.
“This is a ‘Do or Die’ moment for the phone and cable industry,” Chester said.
One of the internet giants, Apple, waited till the final hours to file its comment, telling the FCC not to create “paid fast lanes” on the internet nor allow broadband companies to "block, throttle, or otherwise discriminate against lawful websites and services." It said that repealing net neutrality rules could stifle innovation.
“Worst of all, it could allow a broadband provider, not the consumer, to pick internet winners and losers, based on a broadband provider’s priorities rather than the quality of the service,” Apple said.
How to regulate the internet has become a lightning rod issue for big players in the field. Reuters reported this week that a House committee canceled a Sept. 7 hearing on internet access rules after no major tech or telecom chief executives agreed to appear.
The comments to the FCC took a noticeable jump in May after John Oliver, on his HBO series “Last Week Tonight,” urged viewers to write into the FCC to support maintaining the net neutrality rules.