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Pressure mounts on FCC to cough up answers over fake net neutrality comments

House Dems send snotagram to watchdog boss

Analysis US lawmakers have weighed in on the FCC's controversial vote to scrap America's net neutrality rules, demanding information on the millions of fake comments submitted to the watchdog's public consultation on the decision – and asking pointed questions about how the federal regulator handled them.

"We write to request information that will help both us and the public better understand how the Federal Communications Commission managed the record in its recent net neutrality proceeding," begins a letter sent today by all the Democratic representatives on the House Energy and Commerce committee.

The missive notes that the comment period was "notoriously replete with fake comments" and argues that as a result it "raises novel questions about how an agency can properly handle and interpret the public's feedback to make sound policy decisions."

The seven-page memo [PDF] contains no less than 16 pointed questions over how the FCC handled abuse of its comment system, while noting that its subsequent decision to approve the controversial repeal of the nation's net neutrality rules provided "scant detail" on that aspect.

The letter also makes it plain that the lawmakers believe that the legitimacy of the FCC's decision is in doubt. "While we may not support the outcome of this proceeding, we hope you agree with us that transparency in the process is crucial," it reads. "In order to restore public confidence in the integrity of the process and give the American people a better understanding of how the FCC analyzed the comments filed in this proceeding, we request that you provide us information on how the agency reviewed the public comments."

Some questions...

It then gives the federal regulator three weeks to respond to queries including:

  • How it decided which comments to ignore
  • Why there are no references to comments from citizens in its final report
  • Why it has refused to assist the New York Attorney General in his investigation of Americans' identities being hijacked to send in fake comments
  • How it verified the identity of commenters, including corporations
  • A variety of other questions over how it dealt with the flood of messages, real and fake

The letter also demands that the FCC hand over any relevant internal communications.

While the letter is unlikely to provide a smoking gun, it does keep up political pressure on the FCC over how it handled the public comment process.

The sad reality is that because the extraordinary abuse of the public comment process resulted in a useful outcome for the FCC's Republican majority – specifically, it muddied waters thanks to millions of comments on both sides of the net neutrality debate – the federal regulator decided to simply shrug its shoulders and move on. (That, and claim it was subject to a cyber-attack.)

Well would you believe it

Those who have analyzed the millions of comments, however, have consistently found that once fake comments are removed, an overwhelmingly majority opposed the FCC's course of action.

Faced with almost universal opposition to its plan, the regulator would have had a harder time voting to scrap net neutrality without going through another revision process.

Public consultations are a critical aspect to any public policy decision-making. However, the net neutrality issue became so famous and polarizing – it was even fodder for late-night TV shows – that what is normally a quiet and obscure process was subject to the full force of the internet.

So far, the FCC has demonstrated no intention of investigating what went wrong or how it can be mitigated in future. In fact, in an increasingly partisan atmosphere, even mentioning that the comment process was entirely undermined has become a political statement.

The three majority Republican commissioners running the FCC are simply ignoring the issue, and the two Democratic commissioners are using it as a cudgel against their colleagues. Unfortunately, while this letter purports to be concerned about the decision-making process of a critical body, the truth is that it is just one more partisan punch in an endless, tedious Washington DC fight.

The FCC should, of course, be horrified that its system for gathering public input is effectively worthless. But it isn't. Because admitting it has no effective way to gauge public sentiment could open the watchdog up to having its decisions challenged.

Plus, of course, having an indecipherable cloud of public comment makes it easier for the regulator to approve what it wants without the extra hassle of having to listen to outside voices. Which is, of course, the exact reason that the public comment process is written into federal decision-making in the first place.

We have no doubt that when the Democrats are back in charge of the FCC, one of the first things they will do is insist on a complete overhaul of the comment process to ensure it is fit for purpose. ®

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