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October 21 2019

surveyork
16:54

Net Neutrality Fake Comments: How Political Operatives Duped Ajit Pai's FCC

Political Operatives Are Faking Voter Outrage With Millions Of Made-Up Comments To Benefit The Rich And Powerful

A fierce battle over the regulation of the internet was riddled with millions of fake comments in the most prolific known instance of political impersonation in US history.

Sarah Reeves sat on her couch in Eugene, Oregon, staring at her laptop screen in furious disbelief. She was reading the website of a government agency, where her mother appeared to have posted a comment weighing in on a bitter policy battle for control of the internet. Something was very wrong.

For a start, Annie Reeves, who loved to lead children’s sing-alongs at the Alaska Zoo, had never followed wonky policy debates. She barely knew her way around the web, let alone held strident views on how it should be regulated — and, according to her daughter, she definitely didn’t post angry comments on government websites.

But Sarah Reeves had a more conclusive reason to feel sure her mother’s name had been taken in vain: Annie Reeves was dead. She died more than a year before the comment was posted.

In the spring of 2017, a virtual war was raging over the future of the internet, much of it through comments on the website of the Federal Communications Commission — the government agency responsible for regulating the broadband industry. Reeves wasn’t the only ghost to get sucked in from beyond the grave to do battle on behalf of giant telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Comcast.

At issue was a rule from the Obama era known as “net neutrality.” It was designed to protect the open web by requiring internet providers to treat traffic from all sites equally — and under Trump, the FCC was planning to scrap it. Conservatives had long branded the regulation as an assault on free enterprise, but advocates warned that its repeal would allow the broadband giants to manipulate traffic in favor of the highest-paying platforms, crowding out competition and stifling free speech. The stakes were high, and the public comment period attracted a staggering 22 million submissions.

The problem was, many of the comments were fake.

The New York attorney general opened an investigation and has since issued subpoenas to more than a dozen entities — estimating that “as many as 9.6 million comments may have used stolen identities.” But the FCC went ahead and scrapped the net neutrality rule in a massive victory for the broadband industry and a huge blow, consumer advocates said, for users. Some suspicious comments have been tracked back to particular political operatives. But the question of how millions of identities were marshaled without consent has largely remained a mystery. Until now.

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