An investigation from the New York State Attorney General found nearly 82% of the 22 million public comments filed about net neutrality repeals in 2017 were fake, with millions of phony comments originating from an astroturfing campaign funded by the broadband industry. The broadband industry reportedly spent $4.2 million—through a group called Broadband for America—to submit more than 8.5 million fake comments to manufacture support for repealing net neutrality rules. Another 7.7 million comments reportedly originated from a college student who used software to generate fabricated names and addresses in support of net neutrality. For context, unlike other regulatory bodies, the FCC is required to seek out public comments and to consider them when developing final rules.
Without an informed and engaged public, the public comment process risks presenting a vacuum to be filled by private interests. There’s ample evidence to suggest the general public lacks the information to offer meaningful input on certain areas of technology and policy. This was true of net neutrality: A 2019 Pew poll showed only 45% of US adults could accurately identify net neutrality principles. In the absence of an informed public, the FCC’s public comment system becomes susceptible to manipulation. Firms have repeatedly used fake user submissions and other similar astroturfing tactics to influence proceedings at the EPA and hundreds of other advocacy campaigns, per TechCrunch.
Looking ahead, the FCC will need to address the flaws in its public comment process before soliciting input on potential Section 230 reforms. Like net neutrality before, many Big Tech leaders have signaled support for reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The FCC will seek public comments here as well, and could face a similar problem regarding public awareness: A 2020 Accountable Tech poll showed 81% of registered voters said they were either not very (20%) or not at all familiar (61%) with Section 230. In order to avoid the types of interference witnessed in the net neutrality debate, Big Tech and other firms supportive of 230 reforms should seek to educate and engage the public as well as advocate for improvements to the FCC's public comment process.