Astroturfing Robot Spamming FCC Site With Anti-Net Neutrality Comments

Image courtesy of Chris Goldberg

As if the saga of Net Neutrality 3.0 weren’t already strange and complicated enough, we can now chalk up another weirdness in the proceeding. Someone who really hates net neutrality has set up a spambot that is sending massive numbers of identical, cloned comments to the FCC’s website, using the identities of people who have no idea their names have been attached to these comments.

Reddit users in several subreddits — including r/netneutrality, r/politics, and r/technology — began to observe yesterday that tens of thousands of copies of an identical message appearing en masse, in a very suspicious way, on the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS).

In full, the text of the comment reads:

“The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation. I urge the Federal Communications Commission to end the bureaucratic regulatory overreach of the internet known as Title II and restore the bipartisan light-touch regulatory consensus that enabled the internet to flourish for more than 20 years. The plan currently under consideration at the FCC to repeal Obama’s Title II power grab is a positive step forward and will help to promote a truly free and open internet for everyone.”

The comment system has been the topic of much talk since comedian John Oliver once again tackled the topic of net neutrality on the most recent episode of his HBO show Last Week Tonight.

Immediately following the first airing of Oliver’s segment, the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) keeled over under heavy load. The system stalling out wasn’t particularly surprising, since the same thing happened in 2014 after Oliver exhorted the masses to go make their voices heard.

However, on Monday afternoon the Commission issued a statement claiming that the crash was due to a deliberate DDoS attack by malicious actors. That claim seemed awfully coincidental, so some Senators are calling on the FCC to explain, in detail, exactly what happened.

But after a slow day or two, ECFS seems to be up and running more smoothly than it has been, and so users can get a look at how many comments are coming in and what they’re actually saying — and it’s starting to look like maybe a robot army is involved.

As of 12:50 today, ECFS reports a total of approximately 730,000 filings in the docket (17-108), although the exact number appears to be fluctuating by a few thousand on every new refresh or search.

As of this writing, a search for the first sentence of the spam comment (“The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation”) returns 128,330 results — again, a number that seems to change on every refresh or new search. In total, it’s about 18% of all existing comments at the moment and, apparently, rising.

Form letters are nothing new for public comments, but this is something above and beyond the standard mass-feedback high-profile dockets tend to get.

The comments are coming en masse in a way that seems extremely unlikely to be perpetrated by humans. For example, a huge chunk of identical comments from several commenters sharing the first name “Brittany,” “Britteny,” and “Briytany,” all appear in order, followed by the, Brians, Briens, Brions, and Bryans.

The bot fills out the fields it needs to, with name, address, and ZIP code. So ZDNet called a couple dozen of the people who supposedly left the comments.

Surprise: None of the folks who answered the phone or returned messages had any idea what was going on. One didn’t even know what net neutrality was, and another specifically said to ZDnet, “I have not made any comments today on any websites. I am not sure what you are talking about.”

The Verge also talked to of the supposed who also said they had no idea their names were attached to these comments, and said they have no link to the proceeding and had not, to their knowledge, participated in a comment campaign.

The question of what organization or entity is behind the apparent bot-based astroturfing, though, is a mystery.

The language of the comment is similar to a press release issued by the libertarian think tank Center for Individual Freedom way back in 2010. Currently, however, the CFIF site gives no indication that the organization has a comment submission form available at this time. The 2010 release directs supporters to a website that does seem once to have hosted a bulk form letter submission form, but no longer does — and the site hasn’t been updated since Dec. 2015.

Searches for sentences and phrases from the comment, meanwhile, now return, well, stories like this one.

This appears not to be the first time bots have already targeted this proceeding. The Daily Dot noted in April that several thousand identical comments claiming to be “outraged by the Obama/Wheeler FCC’s decision” to reclassify broadband, and very specifically smearing advocacy group Free Press as a “liberal extremist group [that] ginned up fake support,” appeared on ECFS almost as soon as the docket was open.