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CT residents weigh in on net neutrality, but bots may be too

BY ANA RADELAT | CT MIRROR

12/6/2017
Tens of thousands of Connecticut residents have weighed in on a proposal to reverse Obama-administration "net neutrality rules" that prevent internet providers from blocking a rival's content or creating "fast lanes" for companies willing to pay extra to deliver their content more quickly.

The Federal Communications Commission website shows that nearly 209,000 individuals from Connecticut have submitted public comments either in support of keeping the net neutrality rules or backing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's proposal to scrap the rules at the upcoming commission meeting Dec. 14.

But it's difficult to tell how many of those comments are authentic and how many are phony.

A study by the Pew Research Center shows that more than half of all the public comments are questionable. A sampling of Connecticut's comments by the Mirror turned up duplicate names and comments with the names and addresses of people who said they did not make them.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently wrote the FCC that an investigation by his office showed the public comment process was "corrupted by the fraudulent use of Americans' identities."

Schneiderman set up a shortcut to search the FCC public comment webpage so individuals can check if their identities have been fraudulently used.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen also may investigate the matter.

"This is newly coming to our attention, but we are taking a look and reaching out as well to our colleagues in New York," said Jepsen spokeswoman Jaclyn Severance.

Jepsen joined a dozen Democratic attorneys general in writing in opposition to a change in the rules.

"The existing rules recognize that the Internet has become an essential service in our society, and that role could be compromised by allowing private companies, many of which have conflicts of interest, to dictate the terms of consumers' access to and use of the Internet," the attorneys general wrote.

From April 27 to Aug. 30, 2017, the FCC allowed members of the public to formally submit comments on the subject. In total, 21.7 million comments across the country were submitted electronically and posted online for review.

The FCC is required by law to review public comments for a certain period of time before it votes.

The issue pits internet provider services like Comcast and Verizon against Google, Netflix and startup internet companies as well as giant online retailer Amazon.

Net-neutrality supporters warn that without the Obama-era rules in place, service providers could block any website or app they want and could charge extra for faster service.

Those in favor of changing those rules agree with Pai that the FCC has had too heavy a hand in regulating the internet.

Both sides of the debate have been active in soliciting public support.

"This current draft order hasn't been officially voted, so we're lodging our opposition publicly and loudly now," Netflix tweeted.

But there are questions about the authenticity of many of the comments that were submitted.

In its analysis of the millions of comments submitted to the FCC nationwide, the Pew Research Center found many submissions seemed to include false or misleading personal information.

More than half – 57 percent – used duplicate email addresses or temporary email addresses.

The center also found clear evidence of organized campaigns to flood the comments with repeated messages. It found that only 6 percent of the comments were unique, the other 94 percent were submitted sometimes hundreds of thousands of times. The Pew Center found six of the seven most submitted comments argued against net neutrality regulations.

The center also found that on nine different occasions, more than 75,000 comments were submitted at the same second.

"Three of these nine instances featured variations of a popular pro-net-neutrality message, while the others promoted several different anti-net-neutrality statements," the Pew Research Center said.

Connecticut comments

Most of the public comments from Connecticut, both in opposition and support of the change, were form letters.

One form letter in support of the current net neutrality rule says, "The FCC's Open Internet Rules (net neutrality rules) are extremely important to me. I urge you to protect them. I don't want ISPs to have the power to block websites, slow them down, give some sites an advantage over others, or split the Internet into "fast lanes" for companies that pay and "slow lanes" for the rest."

Karen Thorsen of Easton is listed as one of the thousands who sent in the form letter. She says she signed a petition and supports keeping the current safeguards.

But her letter is replicated four more times on the FCC public comment site.

A form letter in support of changing the rules says, "I strongly encourage the FCC to oppose efforts by the TechLeft and liberal globalists to take over our Internet. Please roll back President Obama's disastrous rules immediately. The future of a free and open Internet is at stake."

Devinder Malhotra of Groton said he submitted on of the letters in support of change because he felt the internet is "overly regulated."

Some from Connecticut on the public comment site who were contacted by the Mirror said they had not submitted a public comment or could not remember weighing in on the issue.

On Monday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal was one of 27 Democratic senators who wrote Pai, a former general counsel for Verizon, to hold off the Dec. 14 vote on the new rules until an investigation is completed on reports that "bots" filed hundreds of thousands of comments to the FCC.

"These reports raise serious concerns as to whether the record the FCC is currently relying on has been tampered with and merits the full attention of, and investigation by, the FCC before votes on this item are cast," the senators wrote.