Astroturf: Federal agencies flooded with hundreds of thousands of fake comments on regulations

The Wall Street Journal investigated the millions of comments which have come into the FCC and other federal agencies on proposed regulations and found hundreds of thousands which were duplicates, many submitted under stolen identities. In some cases, people are even submitting comments under the names of deceased individuals.

A comment posted on the Federal Communications Commission’s public docket endorses a Trump-administration plan to repeal a “net neutrality” policy requiring internet providers to treat all web traffic the same.

Calling the old Obama-era policy an “exploitation of the open Internet,” the comment was posted on June 2 by Donna Duthie of Lake Bluff, Ill.

It’s a fake. Ms. Duthie died 12 years ago.

In many cases, identical letters for or against a particular regulation are being sent on behalf of people who had no idea they had become part of a battle over regulations until they were contacted by the Journal:

After sending surveys to nearly 1 million people—predominantly from the FCC docket—the Journal found a much wider problem than previously reported, including nearly 7,800 people who told the Journal comments posted on federal dockets in their names were fakes…

One 369-word comment supporting the Obama-era net-neutrality rules was posted on the FCC website more than 300,000 times. One of those was attributed to Gloria Burney, 87, a retired speech therapist in Los Angeles. She isn’t in favor of repealing those rules, she said, “but I never wrote that.”

A comment from “Elzor The Blarghmaster” at 9632 Elm Road, Maywood, Ill., was among the 818,000 identical FCC comments backing the Trump policy. No such address could be found, said Jimmie Thompson, a U.S. Postal Service carrier in Maywood…

Mr. Hart, the FCC spokesman, said the “most suspicious activity has been by those supporting Internet regulation.” He said the FCC received more than 7.5 million comments consisting of the same short-form letter supporting the current rules from about 45,000 unique email addresses, “all generated by a single fake e-mail generator website.”

Some comments didn’t bother with taking names from real people. The WSJ found comments which had been submitted under the names Batman and Superman.

At a minimum, this is a bureaucratic mess which people on the taxpayer dime are spending their time to sort out, but does it ultimately matter? The FCC claims it does not. Earlier this month New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman asked the FCC to postpone a vote on Net Neutrality, a position supported by many Democrats, after he identified up to a million of these comments submitted under fake names. From the Hill:

Appearing in a press conference alongside Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Schneiderman said that his office had found about 1 million comments in the FCC’s net neutrality docket that may have been submitted using stolen identities. Schneiderman said that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, has so far rebuffed his requests for assistance in the probe.

“I’m asking Chairman Pai to join us in our effort to investigate millions of fake comments and massive identity theft perpetrated against Americans,” he said.

The FCC refused to delay the vote saying Schneiderman had provided no proof that the fake comments had any impact on the decisions made by the agency:

Thomas Johnson, the FCC’s general counsel, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) on Thursday saying that the commission would not be handing over logs Schneiderman requested in order to investigate fake comments.

Johnson wrote that “while your letter suggests that the public comment process was somehow ‘corrupted’ by the alleged submission of comments under false names, you offer no evidence that this activity affected the Commission’s ability to review and respond to comments in the record.”…

Johnson said that Chairman Ajit Pai did not rely on dubious comments in drafting his proposal to scrap the 2015 net neutrality rules. He also questioned whether Schneiderman has the authority to investigate a federal agency’s rulemaking process.

So this is a pitched political battle in which the astroturf efforts (by both sides) is being used as a reason to impede a vote. But you have to wonder whether this is really a new development or if similar fake letters were being submitted under the previous administration with regard to rules on fracking or Planned Parenthood.