Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai to investigate fake comments made on the commission's website during its comment period for the net neutrality rule changes. Merkley and Toomey said both of their identities were stolen and used to make fake comments, which gave both of them a reason to work together on this issue, despite being in opposing parties.
In their letter to Pai, the senators said that as many as 2 million Americans had their identities stolen and used to make fake comments on the FCC's website supporting the net neutrality rule change. These fake comments may have given the FCC the impression that many Americans supported its plan to repeal net neutrality--which is set to go into effect on June 11--even though most people actually opposed it.
Merkley and Toomey are far from the first to ask the FCC to investigate fraudulent comments. The Fight For The Future digital rights organization said in May 2017 that over 450,000 anti-net neutrality comments were made by a botnet using stolen identities. Victims demanded that the FCC notify people whose identities were used to make the comments, remove the comments from its website, and further investigate the issue.
Former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a tool in December 2017 to help people find out if their identities were used to make false comments on the FCC website. Schneiderman said in a letter to Pai that his office reached out to "multiple top FCC officials, including you, three successive acting FCC General Counsels, and the FCC’s Inspector General" about the investigation. None of the officials responded.
Good news finally came in January, when the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said it would formally investigate fraudulent comments made during the net neutrality repeal comment period. The GAO was careful to note that it would only look into “fraud and misuses of American identities,” which meant it would exclude bot comments that didn't use stolen identities, but at least something was happening.
Yet here we are months later with yet more prodding for the FCC to investigate these comments. Merkley and Toomey sent over these questions:
- How is the FCC working with the Department of Justice to identify those who submitted fake comments?
- Is the FCC working with state attorneys general to determine whether state crimes were broken when these identities were stolen?
- What measures is the FCC taking to ensure this does not happen in the future?
- How can the FCC track down who misused the identities of two million Americans?
- Can the FCC determine how many of the fake comments on record were submitted by bots, a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet?
- Has the FCC considered using a CAPTCHA, or other security technology, to prevent fraudulent machine input?
- Is the FCC aware of any foreign government submitting fake comments and for what purpose?
Neither the FCC nor Pai have publicly responded to the letter from Merkley and Toomey. Pai did find the time, however, to tweet about the anniversary of Pac-Man's debut. Fitting, given that the FCC seems to be as willing to accept false comments supporting its controversial plans as Pac-Man is to gobble up pellets. Let's hope the specter of increased scrutiny works half as well on the FCC as Pac-Man's ghosts do in their game.