GAO to investigate bot-driven net neutrality comments

The congressional watchdog looks to take on the FCC's electronic filing system and the possible widespread of use bots to flood the system.

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A congressional watchdog will probe allegations that the recent Federal Communications Commission docket on net neutrality was slammed by comments generated by automated bots, and by fake comments from individuals whose identities were stolen for the purpose.

The Government Accountability Office agreed to take up 11 House Democrats' call to investigate the 23-plus million comments that flooded the FCC's electronic docketing system during its most recent open public comment period on its plan to repeal net neutrality rules.

The Democratic lawmakers, including ranking members of the Energy and Commerce and Oversight and Government Reform committees, specifically asked GAO to investigate the "extent and pervasiveness of fraud and the misuses of American identities" during the rulemaking process.

GAO accepted the request Jan. 9. Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee released GAO's letter Jan. 23.

The FCC voted to repeal the Obama administration's net neutrality policy by a 3 to 2 vote in December. Under the policy, internet service providers were prohibited from throttling network speeds to give preferred and paid access certain to content and services.

Comments on the net neutrality docket have a knack for generating controversy. The most recent comment period, which ended Aug. 16, 2017, shattered the agency's previous record of 3.7 million comments, set during the last comment period for net neutrality in 2014.

It doesn't appear that a dramatic increase in interested persons is solely responsible for the spike: a Pew Research Center review of the comments found "on nine different occasions, more than 75,000 comments were submitted at the very same second," suggesting an automated spamming effort." Plus, pseudonyms such as Homer Simpson and Ajit Pai (the name of the current FCC chairman) commented both for and against repealing the rules.

In May 2017, an alleged DDoS attack brought down the FCC's comment system, preventing the public from submitting comments for a brief period. In response, Democratic senators sought an FBI investigation — and later a GAO investigation — into the possible cyberattack.

Senior Democrats including Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.) and Elijah Cummings (Md.) also followed up Jan. 24 on a June request for the Department of Justice and FBI to investigate whether the fake comments violated federal law.

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has also slammed the agency's current public feedback process.

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