FCC Proposes Rebuilding Comment System After Millions Were Found Fake
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission proposed an overhaul of the agency’s online comment system after millions of fake comments were posted about a recent FCC rule change.
The FCC’s Ajit Pai said in a letter to two senators that he was proposing “to rebuild and re-engineer” the commission’s electronic comment system “to institute appropriate safeguards against abusive conduct.”
In the July 6 letter to Sens. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, Mr. Pai said he has asked Congress for permission to shift funds to pay for the comment system overhaul.
Messrs. Toomey and Merkley wrote to Mr. Pai in May to complain that their names had improperly been used to post comments on Mr. Pai’s repeal of Obama-era rules on the internet known as net neutrality.
The senators have opposing positions on the repeal, but they agree that the FCC’s comment system is broken.
“It is troubling that some bad actors submitted comments using false names,” Mr. Pai said in the letter. “Indeed, like you, comments were submitted in my name and my wife’s name that reflect viewpoints we do not hold.”
Mr. Pai’s move comes after The Wall Street Journal uncovered thousands of fraudulent comments on regulatory dockets at five federal agencies, including the FCC—some using what appear to be stolen identities posted by computers programmed to pile comments onto the dockets.
The Journal contacted thousands of people who said they didn’t draft or authorize comments that were posted in their names. Mr. Pai cited 7.5 million identical comments that came from 50,000 individuals whose addresses didn’t appear to exist.
Among the changes proposed by the senators and accepted by Mr. Pai was to require commenters to fill out a Captcha—a system designed to prove humans rather than bots provided the information.
In an interview Tuesday, Sen. Merkley said that while he was pleased to hear of safeguards, he was disappointed that Mr. Pai didn’t seem to take seriously his request that the use of his name to file a public comment be referred to the Justice Department for investigation. Mr. Pai said in his letter that he couldn’t comment “on any such investigations.”
To address the misuse of commenters’ identities, Mr. Pai said in the letter that the victim could send the commission a statement that also would be put on the public record alongside the fake comment.
Said Mr. Merkley: “The system of public comment is completely broken and manipulated to the point that it has basically lost any integrity or value.”
Alex Howard, an open-government advocate and founder of e-PluribusUnum.org, which has urged safeguards in the comment system, said the FCC fixes are a small step. “Adding a Captcha to try to prevent spam, unfortunately, sounds like a solution from the last millennium to a decidedly 21st century set of problems,” Mr. Howard said.
An FCC spokesman declined to comment beyond what was in the letter.
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