Usually if your identity is stolen, there’s something you can do about it: Call a business, file a dispute over a charge, or contact law enforcement. But if someone “borrows” your identity to file a fake comment with an open government proceeding — like, say, the one in progress to kill off net neutrality — there may be diddly squat you can do.
One Man’s Mission…
Karl Bode is a freelance writer for the tech and broadband news sites DSL Reports and Techdirt. He and his articles are known for taking a decidedly pro-net-neutrality stance, both in 2014-2015 and in this second round in 2017 as well.
Some joker, however, apparently thought it would be funny to use Bode’s name to file a particularly strident anti-neutrality comment to the FCC.
That filing, dated in late April, claims that DSL Reports is an “unregistered PAC,” and asserts that “the Wheeler FCC presided over a model whereby Internet competition has been stifled.”
“I urge the Commission to roll back the failed Title II provisions and return the Internet to the people,” it concludes.
That of course stands in direct contradiction to the point of view the real Bode holds — and he didn’t write it. So when he discovered the comment in May, he filed a complaint to the FCC about the impersonation.
“We want to make it clear that the FCC does not condone anyone impersonating anyone else’s identity,” G. Patrick Webre, the acting chief of the Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau, wrote to Bode.
But the comments, Webre continues, were filed using the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS). And that system is “intended to promote widespread participation in FCC proceedings.”
Part of that openness is allowing users to fill in all data fields themselves, Webre goes on, and whatever gets entered in stays.
“Once filed in the FCC’s rule making record, there are limits on the agency’s ability to delete, change, or otherwise remove comments from the record,” Webre writes. “Doing so could undermine the FCC’s ability to carry out its legal obligation, which is to respond to all significant issues raised in the proceeding.”
Instead, Webre suggests, Bode should simply file a new comment, with accurate identifying information, to “ensure that the record reflects [his] views.”
Bode was less than thrilled with the FCC’s response.
“As somebody that has fought for the better part of two decades to try and defend a healthy and open internet, it’s disappointing to see someone use my name to support killing these popular consumer protections,” Bode tells Consumerist.
He adds that he finds it “downright depressing to see a government agency tasked with aiding consumers utterly apathetic to this and other obvious examples of proceeding fraud.”
And He’s Not Alone
While someone clearly went out and crafted an individual comment to target Bode, hundreds of thousands of other individuals are also seeing their names attached to spam, anti-neutrality comments they did not write.
The advocacy group Fight for the Future launched a tool back in May to make it easy for the public to see if their names had been attached to one of those half-million spam bot comments. That tool turned up “dozens of verified reports” from individuals who say their names and personal information were attached to comments they had nothing to do with.
With Fight for the Future’s help, 14 of the individuals who had fake comments filed in their names co-signed a letter to the FCC asking it to investigate the issue.
Evan Greer, Fight for the Future’s campaign director, confirms to Consumerist that the organization has as yet received no response of any kind from the FCC regarding its request for an investigation. Meanwhile, “we have continued to receive reports, and continue to see fake comments being submitted into the docket,” Greer says. “That’s because the FCC is not doing anything to prevent this from happening, or assisting the public and the media in investigating who might be behind these fraudulent comments.”
Sen. Frank Pallone (NJ) has likewise asked for an investigation into the fraudulent comments.
Pallone sent a letter [PDF] to the Justice Department and the FBI asking them to look into those 14 comments and many more.
Whoever is filing the fake comments “may be attempting to influence federal policy by publicly misrepresenting the views of innocent victims,” Pallone writes. “As part of its online comment filing system, the FCC is also publicly listing these victims’ private information, including their addresses, making this situation more urgent.”
Knowingly making false statements or representations in any matter like this is prohibited by federal law, Pallone notes. “I urge you to take swift action to investigate who may be behind these comments and, if appropriate under applicable federal law and regulations, prosecute the people behind these fraudulent comments.”
Pallone gave the FBI and DOJ until July 28 to respond.
Can the FCC Do More?
We wanted to know if the FCC could be doing more than it currently is to stem the tide of fraudulent comments. So we asked Gigi Sohn, who from 2013 until 2016 was one of former chair Tom Wheeler’s top advisers at the FCC.
“The FCC can disregard comments they know to be fraudulent,” Sohn tells Consumerist, “And they should.” But there’s more than that they could be doing.
“It’s a matter of will, not a lack of ability,” Sohn says. She pointed out that during the crafting of the 2015 Open Internet Rule, and the appeals process that followed it, that then-commissioner Ajit Pai “would make a big deal over every alleged process violation,” leaping onto every tiny objection he could think of.
But this time around, Sohn notes, Pai has been oddly quiet about violations. “And these are not just harmless errors,” Sohn notes, adding, “This chairman has the will to get it done fast, not to get it done right.”
As for what individuals can do, Sohn notes that she, too, had spoken with Bode about the response he received from the Commission. He asked her if there was something more he could do, she said. Her answer? “Prepare to be a petitioner in the appeal.”
Because if Pai’s Commission continue to moves this reversal through, as it seems they will, another wave of court challenges is all but inevitable. And every single time that the FCC ignored public comment, or failed to sort out the legitimate from the spam, will come up in those proceedings.