Lawmakers Receiving Anti-Net Neutrality Messages From People Who Never Sent Them

In the wake of the FCC’s vote to adopt the new net neutrality rule, Americans of every stripe have bombarded their lawmakers with feedback. Some applaud the rule; others condemn the action. And that is all well and good: it’s the American system of democracy at work, exactly as designed.

Except there’s one big problem: a number of messages against the open internet rule seem to be coming from people who say they never sent them, or in fact from unverifiable “people” who don’t seem to be real constituents at all.

Politico reported this week on a flood of suspect letters reaching certain lawmakers’ offices. The messages all use the same form text, penned by anti-regulation group American Commitment.

American Commitment boasted this week that it has sent 1.6 million messages to lawmakers, from over half a million Americans (each of whom is a constituent of two senators and one representative).

And that’s fine. The issue isn’t that the message is a form letter. Plenty of people have trouble with words, and using a template or a form provided by an organization is, overall, probably more common than sending in an original letter. Organizations of every political leaning, representing every possible permutation of concerns, use the same approach.

The problem is that it doesn’t seem that real, verifiable people living in the actual districts they purport to be from sent the letters.

Politico points to Rep. Jackie Speier of California, who received a significant number of the anti-net-neutrality messages. Spier’s staff noticed the trend of nearly-identical form letters, and discovered that 98% of them came from constituents who had never communicated with her office before, on any issue.

So, the Congresswoman’s office did what representatives’ staffs do, and went to reply or reach back out to some of the senders. And that’s when some replied that, no, they’d never sent messages criticizing net neutrality.

Politico continues:

[Speier’s] aides pointed to a memo sent to members’ staff last week by Lockheed Martin, which manages the technology behind some lawmakers’ “contact me” Web pages. Lockheed initially said it had “some concerns regarding the messages,” including the fact that “a vast majority of the emails do not appear to have a valid in-district address.” In some cases, Lockheed also questioned the “legitimacy of the email address contact associated with the incoming message[s].”

Lockheed Martin also noted that the source of the messages was not clearly or currently identified.

In plain, everyday English, the upshot seems to be: some entity has basically been working a scam on congressional contact forms, to make it look like many more people are pissed off about net neutrality than actually are.

Phil Kerpen, the head of American Commitment, denied to Politico that his organization had anything to do with sending the fraudulent communications — but did note that several other organizations could have borrowed American Commitment’s language.

As for messages said to be coming from people who never sent them, lists of contact information, including name, address, and e-mail address, are incredibly easy to come by. They are frequently bought, sold, rented, and traded in the world of politics and nonprofits. American Commitment has rented access to such e-mail lists in the past, but, Kerpen told Politico, did not do so as part of this particular 1.6m comment campaign.

No matter what the root issue, though, Rep. Speier, is not a fan of any of it.

“The idea that an outside group could use consumer data to impersonate constituents suggests an attempt to hijack the important feedback members of Congress need to truly represent their districts,” Speier said in a statement. “This is identity theft, but instead of impersonating for financial gain, the originators of this theft are striking at the heart of our representative democracy.”

Net neutrality emails raise suspicions [Politico]