Madeleine Rossi, MJLST Staffer
In 2015 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a rule on “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet.” The basic premise of these rules was that internet service providers had unprecedented control over access to information for much of the public. Those in favor of the new rules argued that broadband providers should be required to enable access to all internet content, without either driving or throttling traffic to particular websites for their own benefit. Opponents of these rules – typically industry players such as the same broadband providers that would be regulated – argued that such rules were burdensome and would prevent technological innovation. The fight over these regulations is colloquially known as the fight over “net neutrality.”
In 2017 the FCC reversed course and put forth a proposal to repeal the 2015 regulations. Any time that an agency proposes a rule, or proposes to repeal a rule, they must go through the notice-and-comment rulemaking procedure. One of the most important parts of this process is the solicitation of public comments. Many rules get put forth without much attention or fanfare from the public. Some rules may only get hundreds of public comments, often coming from the industry that the rule is aimed at. Few proposed rules get attention from the public at large. However, the fight over net neutrality – both the 2015 rules and the repeal of those rules in 2017 – garnered significant public interest. The original 2015 rule amassed almost four million comments. At the time, this was the most public comments that a proposed rule had ever received. In 2017, the rule’s rescission blew past four million comments to acquire a total of almost twenty-two million comments.
At first glance this may seem like a triumph for the democratic purpose of the notice-and-comment requirement. After all, it should be a good thing that so many American citizens are taking an interest in the rules that will ultimately determine how they can use the internet. Unfortunately, that was not the full story. New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report in May of 2021 detailing her office’s investigation into wide ranging fraud that plagued the notice-and-comment process. Of the twenty-two million comments submitted about the repeal, a little under eight million of them were generated by a single college student. These computer-generated comments were in support of the original regulations, but used fake names and fake comments. Another eight million comments were submitted by lead generation companies that were hired by the broadband companies. These companies stole individuals’ identities and submitted computer-generated comments on their behalf. While these comments used real people’s identities, they fabricated the content in support of repealing the 2015 regulations.
Attorney General James’ investigation showed that real comments, submitted by real people, were “drowned out by masses of fake comments and messages being submitted to the government to sway decision-making.” When the investigation was complete, James’ office concluded that nearly eighteen of the twenty-two million comments received by the FCC in 2017 were faked. The swarm of fake comments created the false perception that the public was generally split on the issue of net neutrality. In fact, anywhere from seventy-five to eighty percent of Americans say that they support net neutrality.
This is not an issue that is isolated to the fight over net neutrality. Other rulemaking proceedings have been targeted as well, namely by the same lead generation firms involved in the 2017 notice-and-comment fraud campaign. Attorney General James’ investigation found that regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is responsible for promulgating rules that protect people and the environment from risk, had also been targeted by such campaigns. When agencies like the FCC or EPA propose regulations for the protection of the public, the democratic process of notice-and-comment is completely upended when industry players are able to “drown out” real public voices.
So, what can be done to preserve the democratic nature of the notice-and-comment period? As the technology involved in these schemes advances, this is likely to become not only a reoccurring issue but one that could entirely subvert the regulatory process of rulemaking. One way that injured parties are fighting back is with lawsuits.
In May of 2023, Attorney General James announced that she had come to a second agreement with three of the lead generation firms involved with the 2017 scam to falsify public comments. The three companies agreed to pay $615,000 in fines for their involvement. This agreement came in addition to a previous agreement in which the three stipulated to paying four million dollars in fines and agreed to change future lead generating practices, and the litigation is ongoing.
However, more must be done to ensure that the notice-and-comment process is not entirely subverted. Financial punishment after the fact does not account for the harm to the democratic process that is already done. Currently, the only recourse is to sue these companies for their fraudulent and deceptive practices. However, lawsuits will typically only result in financial losses. Financial penalties are important, but they will always come after the fact. Once litigation is under way, the harm has already been done to the American public.
Agencies need to ensure that they are keeping up with the pace of rapidly evolving technology so that they can properly vet the validity of the comments that they receive. While it is important to keep public commenting a relatively open and easy practice, having some kind of vetting procedure has become essential. Perhaps requiring an accompanying email address or phone number for each comment, and then sending a simple verification code. Email or phone numbers could also be contacted during the vetting process once the public comment period closes. While it would likely be impractical to contact each individual independently, a random sample would at least flag whether or not a coordinated and large-scale fake commenting campaign had taken place.
Additionally, the legislature should keep an eye on fraudulent practices that impact the notice-and-comment process. Lawmakers can and should strengthen laws to punish companies that are engaged in these practices. For example, in Attorney General James’ report she recommends that lawmakers do at least two things. First, they should explicitly and statutorily prohibit “deceptive and unauthorized comments.” To be effective these laws should establish large civil fines. Second, the legislature should “strengthen impersonation laws.” Current impersonation laws were not designed with mass-impersonation fraud in mind. These statutes should be amended to increase penalties when many individuals are impersonated.
In conclusion, the use of fake comments to sway agency rulemaking is a problem that is only going to worsen with time and the advance of technology. This is a serious problem that should be taken as such by both agencies and the legislature.
 80 Fed. Reg. 19737.
 https://thehill.com/policy/technology/435009-4-in-5-americans-say-they-support-net-neutrality-poll/, https://publicconsultation.org/united-states/three-in-four-voters-favor-reinstating-net-neutrality/.