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FCC Says It Will Vote On Net Neutrality Despite Millions Of Fake Public Comments


I'm Robert Siegel with All Tech Considered.


SIEGEL: A lot of people seem to care about net neutrality rules which say that Internet service providers must treat all web traffic equally. The Federal Communications Commission has scheduled a vote for Thursday on whether to abolish the rules, and it's received some 22 million public comments so far. But as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, many of those comments are fake.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The Pew Research Center decided to take a close look at all those comments submitted on net neutrality. Aaron Smith, an associate director at the center, says several things popped out.

AARON SMITH: Ninety-four percent of the comments, based on our analysis, were submitted multiple times, and in some cases, those comments were submitted many hundreds of thousands of times.

NAYLOR: So in other words, almost all of the comments seem to have been parts of organized campaigns to influence the FCC commissioners to vote one way or the other. Now, organized campaigns to influence public policy, whether it be for an agency like the FCC or on issues before Congress, are probably as old as the Republic, but this is taking it to a new level - for instance, the names listed in the public comments. Smith says there were a lot of duplicates.

SMITH: The No. 1 name listed when we dug into the comments was the Internet. The Internet submitted about 17,000 comments out of the 22 million.

NAYLOR: Common names like John Johnson and John Smith were each on thousands of comments, and there were others that stood out.

SMITH: John Oliver (laughter) in theory submitted several thousand comments. Net Neutrality submitted several thousand comments. So we saw a number of areas where names were either duplicated or were in some cases not names at all.

NAYLOR: John Oliver is the HBO host who in one of his most-viewed segments argued in favor of net neutrality regulation.


JOHN OLIVER: The Internet - repository of all human knowledge.

NAYLOR: Pew found that the most prevalent comment filed 2.8 million times was opposed to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who wants to roll back the net neutrality regulations. But then the next six most prevalent comments favored Pai's position. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office conducted its own investigation into the comments and determined that at least a million were fake. Schneiderman, a Democrat, called on the FCC to delay its vote on net neutrality.

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: You cannot conduct a legitimate vote on a rulemaking proceeding if you have a record that is in shambles as this one is.

NAYLOR: It's not clear whether the fake comments were submitted by bots, although Pew found that on several occasions tens of thousands of comments came in at the same precise time. Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel says half a million of the fake comments originated from Russian email addresses. She says the issue with the FCC comments calls into question the integrity of the entire public comment process.

JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Agencies open up their doors and in effect ask the American people to tell them what they think about proposed rules, how their lives might be changed by them. It is essential that we come up with ways to manage the integrity of that process in the digital age.

NAYLOR: An FCC spokesman says the commission will hold its vote on whether to overturn the net neutrality rules this Thursday as scheduled. Rosenworcel says that shows the FCC's sheer contempt for public input. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.