Two years ago, a flood of millions of public comments in favor of protecting net neutrality helped federal regulators enact strict new rules to stop online discrimination by Internet service providers. But with the election of Donald Trump, a new top regulator is trying to roll back the rules and the public comment arena has become a fierce battleground.
Unfortunately, in an era of fake news and floods of bot-driven fake comments on social media, the net neutrality debate, too, has been bogged down in a morass of chicanery. On Monday, a group opposed to the rules said its analysis had uncovered 1.3 million likely fake pro-net neutrality comments from addresses in France, Russia and Germany “almost exclusively” from the email domains Pornhub.com and Hurra.de
“The gaming of the comment submission process continues and in fact appears to have reached epidemic proportions,” Peter Flaherty, president of the nonprofit conservative watchdog group National Legal and Policy Center, said in a statement. “At this point, the deception appears to be so massive that the comment process has been rendered unmanageable and meaningless.”
Of course, even thought the fake comments were allegedly in favor of the rules, rendering the comment system meaningless fuels the anti-net neutrality side, which has stronger support from industry than the public. In May, the Federal Communications Commission’s comment system was flooded with fake anti-net neutrality comments. The NLPC, which came to fame for suing Hillary Clinton’s healthcare task force in the 1990s, released its analysis after last week’s “Day of Action” by net neutrality supporters attracted millions more comments.
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The FCC, which oversees the communications and media industries, sought comments starting in April as part of an effort by Trump-appointed chairman Ajit Pai to undo the rules passed under his predecessor, Obama-appointee Tom Wheeler. Wheeler’s stringent rules to bar Internet service providers from blocking, slowing or otherwise discriminating against web sites and online services came after courts had twice struck earlier, narrower efforts to protect net neutrality.
Many Internet companies like Netflix (NFLX) and Google (GOOGL) along with consumer advocacy groups favor the rules, arguing that they are essential to protecting innovation and free speech online. But free market groups and large Internet service providers such as Verizon (VZ) and Comcast (CMCSA) are seeking to repeal the rules, saying they harm business online and deter investment in digital networks.
The comment mess follows an effort by comedian John Oliver, host of the HBO show Last Week Tonight, to get viewers to submit pro-net neutrality comments to the FCC website. Oliver set up a web address, gofccyourself.com, that forwards to the FCC’s comment page. Shortly after Oliver unveiled the address, the FCC claimed its website had crashed under a denial of service attack by unknown hackers, a claim which some have questioned.
Three year ago, Oliver spurred millions to submit comments in favor of the rules.