Bots Lose, Real Americans Win With the Internet Policy Debate

by Mike Wendy on October 2, 2017

I wrote the following piece, which appeared in Morning Consult, September 26, 2017.

Bots Lose, Real Americans Win With the Internet Policy Debate

According to data gathered from the Federal Communication Commission’s Electronic Comment Filing System, approximately 22 million comments have flowed into the agency’s Restoring Internet Freedom proposal — a rulemaking seeking to modify the 2015 Commission’s controversial Title II net neutrality order.

But there’s a hitch. Millions, that is.

It seems the majority of those comments aren’t real. And the balance that remains shows that the prior FCC Order should be repealed. A study commissioned by industry group Broadband for America concluded that “69.9% of [RIF] comments are in favor of repealing Title II once accounting for fake and unverifiable international comments.”

This has net neutrality proponents crying “conspiracy,” caterwauling that the BoA research is no more than corporate-funded FUD designed to undermine millions of comments in the “ballot box,” which “prove” that “real” Americans demand keeping Title II net neutrality to regulate the internet.

Among those leading this ironic (we’ll get to that in a minute) witch hunt is former FCC official Gigi Sohn. She’s called on the agency to explain itself because, as she points out, the ECFS doesn’t authenticate comments which invites the spam, therefore undermining the integrity of the system and putting it in potential conflict with the Administrative Procedure Act.

Now, let’s address why this argument is, in fact, ironic.

Three years ago, the FCC, including Ms. Sohn, was in the exact same position as the current FCC and failed to “authenticate” comments regarding its proposed Title II net neutrality order — the exact thing they are now blasting the current FCC for.

And that’s not all. In addition, over 220 pages of FOIA’d e-mails recently released by the FCC to my organization, MediaFreedom, indicate that as “4 million” comments flooded the FCC on its Title II net neutrality proposal in 2014, the agency at its highest levels of leadership willfully ignored authenticating them.

Interesting. We didn’t hear the FCC screaming then as that proposal became law, did we? Nope.

Of course, if the agency had investigated the 2014 comments – as 12 market-based groups urged then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and his inspector general to do three years ago – it would have been forced to toss out tons of them. Doing so, however, would have doomed the “4 million” net neutrality “votes” purportedly asking “for” utility regulation of the internet.

Quite simply, the prior FCC knew its comment count was, well, fake news. But unwilling to let the PR jackpot it helped create go to waste, the agency doubled down and continued spinning its tale, using those unverifiable “voices” to disenfranchise average Americans so it could get Title II net neutrality into law.

Let’s address the facts and nothing more. Most admit that the ECFS has flaws, this is true. And the lack of authentication is key among them. Yet, as we’ve seen with the past and present net neutrality battles, this open system can be easily abused by unscrupulous characters (the FCC is presently addressing solutions that encourage the public to comment, but which also stop the spam).

Chairman Ajit Pai’s FCC will make its decision as soon as November based on meticulously parsing through comments to discover what is real and what is not. Then, balanced with the need to gather diverse facts from the public to inform the record, the due process demands of the APA, the statute which outlines the commission’s powers, and court precedent, the agency will use its expertise to transparently decide how best to move forward.

Much to the chagrin of people like Ms. Sohn, the current process indicates that the charade is over. Bots lose. Real Americans win. Of course, they’ll continue kicking and screaming to fuel the net neutrality propaganda machine. This includes blitzing Capitol Hill in several weeks with what they’re calling a “Net Neutrality Day of Advocacy” in which activists will escort volunteers to puppet activists’ net neutrality message (another irony in this tale, considering they’re going to lawmakers although they’ve flat-out denounced a legislative solution to the matter).

Facts — not fake comments and sensationalist messaging — are back in the driver’s seat at the FCC. And this good (shall I say, renewed) process will prevail.

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