Some 18 million of the 22 million comments filed four years ago in the 2017 proceeding to repeal net neutrality were in fact not really comments from, you know, people commenting. That’s what the NY attorney general report from late last week claims.
For evidence they have admissions by three survey companies that generated a significant fraction of the comments: Fluent, Opt-Intelligence, and React2Media. The industry organization Broadband for America apparently paid $4.2M to do the deed, which was apparently the result of automated software run largely by a single ’19-year old college student’. Broadband for America basically represents the big last mile providers of all types.
FCC comments have always been a curious thing. The agency solicits comments, and news reports talk about how many there are in favor of what as if it is some sort of measurement of public interest and support. But we’ve always known that it’s a bit more about which side is organized and funded to enable them. Yet we did think it was about organizing and enabling partisans who were actually people.
So if the comments were by the industry, and the FCC – then run by Ajit Pai under the auspices of the Trump administration, were both in favor of repealing the earlier net neutrality rules at the time. What were the comments for? Just cover, i.e. a veneer of popular support at a time few were actually paying attention to either side, drowning out what opposition voices there were. At least that’s how it looks to me.
In the world of lobbying, $4.8M is peanuts. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I’m not and I doubt anyone else is. What is that aphorism, that in the world of xyz (here: lobbying) if you aren’t cheating you aren’t trying hard enough? The survey companies themselves have paid fines already, we’ll see who else does in the end. But those fines will probably be peanuts as well. None of this will matter in the end.
The real problem here is not that it was done, or even that it is so easy to do, but that it was useful to even try. We need a better way to discuss things than to ‘solicit comments’ that nobody reads anyway about subjects that two irreconcilable sides have already decided their final answers for. In a way, the fact that 80% of comments filed were fake is representative of the whole ‘discussion’ that was being had at the time.
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