Some of the staff at Fight for the Future knew something fishy was going on when they saw their neighbors’ names on the list of public comments to the Federal Communications Commission supporting the end of the open internet.
“When we started to see the comments pour in, the name and address data were too perfect. Something didn’t really add up,” said Holmes Wilson, the co-founder and co-director of Fight for the Future, an open-internet nonprofit. “When we started looking into it, enough names were submitted that we saw some of our neighbors’ names being used.”
So one staffer, Laila Abdel-Aziz, went to her neighbor’s house to find out if anybody had filed a public comment to the FCC in support of a position held almost exclusively by telecom companies and their lobbyists. Those neighbors, according to public FCC comments, had filled out forms saying they wanted to amend net-neutrality rules.
Except they hadn’t.
“We were shocked. We tried to make as much of a deal out of this as possible,” said Wilson. “Stealing someone’s identity to advance a political point is not something should happen in American politics ever. But it did.”
In late May, Fight for the Future sent a complaint to the FCC on behalf of 27 Americans who had their identity stolen. The nonprofit also explained to the agency how to find out who did it.
Almost 50 days later, the FCC hasn’t even removed the forged comments from public record.
Wednesday is the Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality, in which major internet companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Twitter, Snapchat, and Reddit will present roadblocks to users of their services to show them what life could be like in an internet without net neutrality.
Current net-neutrality rules ensure no website or internet-based service can be given preferential treatment—or, in turn, slowed—by internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast. Websites like Netflix are seeking to keep the rules the same and ensure their users’ services won’t be artificially throttled by the corporations providing internet service in favor of a video service of their own.
Internet service providers like Comcast have poured millions of dollars into lobbying against net neutrality for the past few years, including a social-media campaign in the past few months.
Trump administration-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is seeking to overturn net-neutrality rules created in 2015.
“Ajit Pai and the FCC continue to refuse to address this very serious issue,” said FFTF campaign director Evan Greer. “Individuals who signed that letter have also attempted to contact the FCC directly and the agency has done nothing, and will not remove the fraudulent comments that were submitted in their name.”
After all, the fraudulent letter-writing campaign wasn’t a small-time operation. Thousands of form letters had been filed online, fraudulently signed under the names of real people, from Utah to Maine.
“Whoever set this up got a large cloud service to a rate-limited public FCC API that doesn’t allow many submissions. They had to spin up a huge number of servers to make it work,” said Wilson.
In English this time: “It’s not expensive, but definitely a pain in the neck. You don’t do this kind of work for free.”
In a 2015 ruling endorsed by President Obama, the FCC classified internet service as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that would ensure “no paid prioritization” and would allow the commission to “look askance” at corporations who “buy [their] way into a better position because [they’ve] got deep pockets.”
In May of this year, after closing investigations into three major telecom providers, Pai began the formal process of rolling back those rules.
The FCC did not respond to a request for comment on this report.
Making false statements to the federal government is a felony, and there’s a quick way to find out who did it, especially for a commission charged with running the web, Wilson said.
“It would be easy for the FCC to make the IP addresses of the servers used [available] to an independent researcher or to law enforcement to facilitate an investigation. As far as I know, they have not done that,” he said. “Will the FCC tell people what IP address was used to submit fraudulent comments in their name? They have the logs, and the IP could help identify whoever did this.”
In the meantime, Wilson wants any response at all from a government agency turning a blind eye to its constituents—impersonated or otherwise.
“We’re dismayed that the FCC didn’t take [the complaint] seriously on its merits, but ultimately, we don’t think [the forged signatures] will help the cause of whoever did it,” he said.