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In the middle of the net neutrality battle, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allowed the public to formally submit comments about the topic. A total of 21.7 million comments were submitted online, but many of the comments were duplicates, contained false information, and are suspected to have been submitted by bots or other automated processes.
Comments to the FCC were accepted from April 27 to Aug. 30, 2017, as the FCC considered rolling back net neutrality regulations, which would allow for companies to pay for prioritized web traffic. The number of comments made in that four-month window—21.7 million—far exceeds 450,000, the number of comments left the last time the FCC accepted public comments in 2014.
According to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of the comments, many of the millions of submissions were not original thoughts from verified people.
Of its “notable findings,” the center said 57 percent of comments used duplicate or temporary email addresses. Of the 21.7 million comments, only 6 percent were unique, and the other 94 percent were submitted multiple times. Thousands of comments were submitted at the exact same moment.
The center also found that thousands of submissions used duplicate names. The name “Net Neutrality” was used nearly 17,000 times, and other names including “The Internet,” “Pat M,” and “John Smith” were each used thousands of times.
The Pew Research Center concluded that the FCC did not use an email verification process, and thousands of submissions were made using the same emails. One false email, “[email protected]” was used for 7,513 comments. The center said 1.4 million email addresses appeared multiple times.
Names and email addresses were not the only duplicates. The exact same comments were submitted hundreds of thousands of times. Often, these comments were submitted at the exact same time—down to the second.
Complicating matters further, 444,938 of the comments were from Russian email addresses, Bloomberg reported Wednesday. It’s not known whether the email addresses came from actual Russian people or computer bots.
The rate of activity on the FCC comment page has already prompted an investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Bloomberg reported that Brian Hart, an FCC spokesman, said in an email that there had been “concerning activity” regarding public comments on both sides of the net neutrality debate.
“The most suspicious activity has been by those supporting internet regulation,” Hart said. “We do not purge form letters, such as these, from the record as we err on the side of keeping the public record open and do not have the resources to investigate every comment that is filed.”
View the full Pew Research Center findings here.
Brianna Stone is a reporter and digital producer. Her work has been published by the Austin American-Statesman, the Daily Dot, and USA Today.