Future Tense

The 2017 Battle Over Net Neutrality Somehow Keeps Getting Weirder

Former Chairman of Federal Communications Commission Ajit Pai sits at a table with a cup of coffee as he gestures with his hands.
Former Chairman of Federal Communications Commission Ajit Pai testifies on Capitol Hill on June 24, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Jonathan Newton-Pool/Getty Images

During the ferocious 2017 battle over the repeal of net neutrality protections, the Federal Communications Commission received a whopping 22 million public comments. But that doesn’t mean 22 million Americans had strong feelings about the issue, according to a new report from New York Attorney General Letitia James.

James’ investigation found that the comments were riddled with fraud. One New Yorker who commented in favor of the appeal turned out to be dead. A single 19-year-old college student apparently filed 7.7 million comments arguing against the repeal. And a broadband industry group spent millions to submit more than 8.5 million fake comments supporting the decision.

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Many of these fake comments were the responsibility of lead generation firms—companies intended to help policy campaigns drum up public support and comments. Instead, the report found, three lead generation firms fraudulently submitted comments themselves. And net neutrality wasn’t their only target—they also submitted millions of fake comments across more than 100 other advocacy campaigns to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and various federal and state legislators.

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Net neutrality was approved in 2015 after the FCC ruled in favor of the Open Internet Order, but was repealed in late 2017 during the Trump administration. The debate over net neutrality attracted an unprecedented amount of interest from the public. At one point, the FCC thought that it was facing a DDoS attack—but it turned out the site was just deluged by fans of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. Once in place, the repeal faced legal challenges, but it was upheld by the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a 2019 ruling.

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Proponents of net neutrality argue that regulation classifying internet service providers as utilities ensures they won’t cut off services, block content, or prioritize specific traffic on their networks. In other words, they see net neutrality as a must to keep open and free access to the internet. Those against the policy argue that ISPs already value a free internet. Former FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell claims that classifying ISPs as utilities would expose them to “heavy-handed regulation” that “will raise costs (and ultimately consumer prices) and slow the pace of investing to improve the network.”

That the 2017 net neutrality comments were compromised isn’t a new revelation.  Work from the Pew Research Center, machine learning analysis, and journalists have long questioned the legitimacy of many of the comments submitted to the FCC on the topic, especially because they were split pretty evenly between pro and con, while polls conducted around that time found that about 80 percent of Americans supported maintaining net neutrality.

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The report also outlines recommendations to improve the transparency and accountability of FCC rulemaking proceedings, which allow the public to weigh in on draft proposals of regulation changes. For instance, it suggests mandating that lead generation vendors receive express, informed consent before submitting a public comment on someone’s behalf.

The New York AG report includes comments from people whose names were used without their permission. One expressed disgust “that somebody stole [their] identity and used it to push a viewpoint that [they] do not hold.” One 10-year-old boy’s name, address, and valid e-mail was used without his or his parents’ permission. One other victim may have summed it up best: “These are the kinds of actions that make the population lose faith in the system.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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