THE FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS Commission says it wants to hear from you about the future of net neutrality. But in opening its virtual doors to the public, it’s also opened them to spammers and trolls, some of whom might have even managed to knock the FCC’s site offline this past week.
On the one hand, these problems are mere hassles: The FCC’s site was only down for a few hours, and the flood of spam was easy to identify. On the other hand, they show just how hard it is to turn the web into a platform for democratic participation. Just look at any comments section on the internet.
If government agencies can’t find a way to stop spammers and trolls, their digital platforms could become useless.
The promise of digital democracy goes something like this: In the early days of the United States, few people could travel to the capital to voice their opinions on the issues of the day. Mail took weeks to deliver. That necessitated representatives who could come together and work full-time in a single location. But in the digital age, communications travel nearly instantly, removing or at least dramatically lowering the barriers to participation. Representative democracy still has many qualities to recommend it as a form of government, but logistical necessity is not one of them. Want to debate just about anyone, on any issue, from just about anywhere? Welcome to Twitter.
Or, if you’re especially interested in sounding off on net neutrality, welcome to the FCC’s website. The agency’s call for input on this seemingly wonkish policy topic has already attracted hundreds of thousands of public comments. The question now is how the government should handle all this democracy.
In 2014, comedian and Last Week Tonight host John Oliver did the seemingly unthinkable: He helped turn net neutrality into a rousing mainstream issue. This past Sunday, he called on viewers to ask the FCC to keep the net neutrality rules it passed in early 2015 instead of throwing them out. To make weighing in easier, Oliver pointed to a cheeky web addressthat would redirect people to a form they needed to fill out in order to leave a comment on the FCC site.
Hours later, the FCC site went offline. Initial reports suggested it was due to a surge of commenters spurred by Oliver, but on Monday the FCC issued a statement claiming it had been the victim of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.
More recently, observers noticed that more than 128,000 of the 735,000 comments received so far were filed with identical text complaining that the FCC’s net neutrality rules are “smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation.”
The Verge discovered that the names and addresses used for this flood of cloned comments appear to have come from a leaked spam database known as Special K. The text was taken from a conservative group called the Center for Individual Freedom, which encouragedits members to send a form letter to the FCC but denies spamming the site.
A similar form-letter campaign from the group American Commitment (first spotted by Motherboard) has resulted in more than 2,000 comments so far.