Someone was trying to game the Federal Communications Commission's electronic public comment system on net-neutrality rules.
But who? Was it supporters or foes of the open internet rules—or was it the Russians?
A study has found more than 7.75 million comments were submitted from email domains attributed to FakeMailGenerator.com, and they had nearly identical wording. The FCC says some of the nearly 23 million comments on Chairman Ajit Pai's proposal to gut Obama-era rules were filed under the same name more than 90 times each.
And then there were the 444,938 from Russian email addresses, which also raised eyebrows, even though it's unclear if they were from actual Russian citizens or computer bots originating in the U.S. or elsewhere.
The oddities in the FCC's inbox have attracted scrutiny from New York's attorney general and from the Government Office, which has opened a probe.
"In an era where foreign governments have indisputably tried to use the internet and social media to influence our elections, federal and state governments should be working together to ensure that malevolent actors cannot subvert our administrative agencies' decision-making processes," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in an open letter to the FCC.
Schneiderman said the FCC had not cooperated with his investigation.
Brian Hart, an FCC spokesman, calls Schneiderman's facts "completely inaccurate." Hart said in an email that there had been "concerning activity" regarding public comments on both sides of the issue.
"The most suspicious activity has been by those supporting internet regulation," Hart says. "We do not purge form letters, such as these, from the record as we err on the side of keeping the public record open and do not have the resources to investigate every comment that is filed."
Many submissions seemed to include false or misleading personal information, with 57 percent of comments analyzed using temporary or duplicate email addresses, the Pew Research Center says in a study published Wednesday.
There's "clear evidence of organized campaigns to flood the comments with repeated messages," Pew says in its study, which found 94 percent of comments were submitted multiple times—some cases, hundreds of thousands of times.
Schneiderman, in his letter to the FCC, said he was "investigating who perpetrated a massive scheme to corrupt the FCC's notice and comment process through the misuse of enormous numbers of real New Yorkers' and other Americans' identities."
The Government Accountability Office is looking into missing emails, automated comments using peoples' identities without their knowledge and a service interruption suffered in May to the FCC's comments filing system, said Charles Young, a spokesman for the agency that serves as Congress's investigative branch. Requests for the probe came from House Democrats and Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat.
Meanwhile, the strange filings are ammunition for critics of Pai's proposal to kill the current rules and let broadband providers block or slow websites. The proposal faces a Dec. 14 vote at the agency where it's expected to succeed with votes from the Republican majority Pai leads.
"There's something not right in the @FCC record," FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said in a Nov. 22 tweet that cited "bots, bogus comments, stolen names."
The FCC's website shows it received almost 23 million comments by late Tuesday on its net neutrality proposal. In August, after 21.8 million had been received, the trade group Broadband for America, backed by AT&T, Comcast and cable and wireless trade groups, released an analysis conducted by Emprata, a data-analytics consulting firm.
Emprata found almost 7.6 million comments saying "I am in favor of strong net neutrality under Title II of the Telecommunications Act."
Another set of 1.4 million took the opposite view, saying "I strongly urge the FCC to repeal" the rules.
Given the fact that the rules apply to the U.S., an unusual number of comments—1.74 million—were attributed to international addresses, with 444,938 from Russia and nearly as many from Germany, Emprata found. All but 25 of the emails from those countries were against repealing the 2015 rules.
The report presented no evidence that the comments were linked to the Russian government.U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a hacking campaign during the 2016 presidential election that sought to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton.
"We did not investigate potential actors," Paul Salasznyk, Emprata's chief executive officer, says in an email. From the data, there is no way to determine the origin of those comments, or whether they were routed from different computers, he says.
A "vast majority" of all comments originated from form letters with exact or similar phrasing, according to Emprata. Personalized comments, or those that appeared only once in the docket, favored retaining the rules by a margin of 1.5 million versus 23,000 for repeal, according to the study.
Tim Karr, spokesman for the policy group Free Press that supports the 2015 rules, says, "There's substantial evidence there was considerable tampering with the process."
"The appearance of some impropriety gives Ajit Pai an excuse to reject the comments process," Karr says.
Pai's plan is based on the facts and the law, not the number of comments, the agency said in a statement.
"The commenting process is not an opinion poll—for good reason," it said.
Some stakeholders agree that the commentary system might not be the best judge of public sentiment given that it appears prone to misuse.
"We shouldn't be making policy like we're voting for 'Dancing with the Stars,'" says Jonathan Spalter, president of the trade group US Telecom that has members including AT&T and Verizon Communications.
The droves of computer-generated short-form comments favoring and opposing the rules repeal didn't address vital legal issues, Randolph May, a former FCC associate general counsel and president of the Maryland-based Free State Foundation, which advocates for limited government, said in a blog post Nov. 27.
"Let's get real—and be frank," May said. He called arguments over the docket a "diversionary tactic" by those who lack confidence in their substantive arguments.
-- Bloomberg News