Turns out, fraudulent comments using the stolen identities of real people have ended up on all manner of government proposals. The government has received thousands of these fraudulent submissions, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found, undercutting arguments on everything from the proposed net neutrality repeal to new payday lending rules.
Last year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was inundated with 1.4 million comments, many of them suspect, regarding a proposed rule change for payday lending.
“It’s very suspicious,” Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress, a left-leaning nonprofit, told Politico at the time. “We’re not just talking about language that’s nice to payday lenders. Or talks about a generic need for a payday loan. We’re talking about specific experiences that are repeated in letters.”
Turns out the suspicions were well-founded: Thousands of those comments used the stolen identities of real people to mimic actual grassroots support, according to the Journal.
But those submitting fraudulent comments on behalf of payday lenders weren’t actually the shadiest operators of the group. That honor belongs to anti-net neutrality advocates.
As has been previously noted, the FCC received millions of suspicious comments supporting its plans to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules that require internet providers to treat all online content equally. The FCC refuses to release information about where the messages came from.
In pursuit of that question, the Journal emailed 956,000 people who (allegedly) submitted a comment to the FCC. Of the 19,000 people who responded, 7,741 ― or roughly 40 percent ― denied having commented.
Jessica Lints of Blossvale, New York, was one of the people to have a fraudulent comment to the FCC submitted in her name.
“How the hell is this possible ??????” She wrote to the Journal, noting she deliberately avoids making political comments online. “And if these people are so damn concerned about this issue that I know nothing about why are they not using their own names?”
Chris Sinchok, a developer in Chicago who parsed the comments for clues on their origin, said many looked like this:
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.
Per Sinchok’s analysis, the FCC saw this message 436,856 times, and the manner in which it was submitted strongly indicates it was sent from an automated source, he said. Sinchok described the submission pattern as “a near-constant rate of comments, punctuated by periods of zero comments, as if the bot was turning on and off.”
Comments sent in support of net neutrality show far less evidence of manipulation, Sinchok’s analysis found.
After subtracting all the fraudulent comments the FCC received on net neutrality, Sinchok counted 395,353 authentic comments expressing support for net neutrality, and just 743 opposing it. (To be fair, Sinchok published his analysis before the comment period ended, so he doesn’t have the latest data. Nevertheless, his findings are similar to reports from other teams that analyzed all 22 million net neutrality comments.)
While New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has opened up an investigation into the comments, the FCC has repeatedly refused to turn over critical evidence in the case.
On Wednesday, Schneiderman and 17 other state attorneys general called on the FCC to delay its vote until the “corrupted process” can be further scrutinized, noting that 2 million comments submitted to the FCC used the stolen identities of real Americans.
“This investigation isn’t about the substantive issues concerning net neutrality,” Schneiderman wrote in an open letter making his case last month. “It’s about the right to control one’s own identity and prevent the corruption of a process designed to solicit the opinion of real people and institutions.”
“Misuse of identity online by the hundreds of thousands should concern everyone ― for and against net neutrality, New Yorker or Texan, Democrat or Republican,” Schneiderman continued. “We all have a powerful reason to hold accountable those who would steal Americans’ identities and assault the public’s right to be heard in government rulemaking.”
This story has been updated to include Schneiderman's tweet, and to reflect the request of the 18 attorneys general to delay the FCC vote.