Today's episode is part of a story that some would call a slow-motion car crash — an epic failure that has the entire connected world's well-being hanging in the balance.
It started a year ago. May 9, 2017, to be precise. The debate was raging over net neutrality — the idea that Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, can't charge you extra for using stuff like Netflix or Facebook. The FCC was collecting public feedback on their proposal to get rid of net neutrality protections. (NB: The FCC did decide to rollback those protections and it went into effect on Monday).
Redditor Matt, aka u/hockeymass, wished to register a complaint about the agency's proposal. And he noticed something.
The same comment kept repeating itself over and over, "the unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration..."
Redditor David Awad also noticed the same thing at the same time.
So did Corey.
There were close to 5 million of these very-similar, astroturfy comments railing against net neutrality — something that the majority of Americans actually support. Matt emailed some major media outlets and the story was everywhere all of a sudden.
More investigation revealed that many of the comments were uploaded at the same exact time, in bulk. And the names weren't all fake — some of them were from real people. Like former President Barack Obama, which is a little weird since Obama had supported protecting Net Neutrality.
(You can search the FCC's own database to see if your name was used).
Someone else's name that was used is Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat who represents Oregon. He says that when Ajit Pai, head of the FCC, announced that he was rolling back the net neutrality protections, his office was flooded with calls against Pai's decision.
"If I had 101 calls, a hundred of them would say absolutely preserve Net Neutrality," he says. "And then there'd be the one phone call saying, 'we love what the FCC is doing to enrich the ISPs.' I've never seen an issue in 20 years of involvement in policy and politics where the public was so completely on one side."
The New York Attorney General's office started investigating and set up its own tool for people to see if their name had been used. And Merkley's was there.
So was Sen. Pat Toomey's. He's a Republican from Pennsylvania and is on the opposite side of the aisle on this issue from Merkley. He joined with Merkley in a letter to the FCC and Pai asking what they were doing about this comment fraud.
"They haven't responded to our letter," says Merkley. "So we're looking forward to them actually telling us what they're doing. But our assumption right now is they are doing absolutely nothing."
Mignon Clyburn was, until recently, a Democratic commissioner at the FCC. She worked there for almost 10 years and was in favor of keeping the net neutrality regulations in place. She voted to keep them in place in 2015; the commission now has a Republican-leading majority.
And she's worried about the future of net neutrality, so she's speaking up about it.
"The only reason we heard about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter and other types of movements is because they got a foothold online," she says. "... We could live in a world where that's no longer the case."
She also was at the FCC when the astroturfed comments showed up.
"When the attorney general reached out to this office, there was basically radio silence coming from the FCC majority. I and my colleagues were outraged because the FCC did not even pretend that it was going to investigate any of these allegations," she says.
Videographer Rob Bliss had a slightly different way of protesting, which you can watch below:
The FCC's Response
Ajit Pai did not respond to our request for comment, but Ben and Amory were able to talk to Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner at the FCC.
He says a lot of the fears about net neutrality are overblown, and that small ISPs were suffering because of net neutrality protections.
Carr says the FCC isn't the right place for these protections, that maybe they belong with the FTC or with Congress.
"It's great to see the passion for these issues, but we ultimately have to go based on our best judgment in light of all of that," he says. "... I think we ran a process here that we can be proud of and a transparent open process."
When Ben asked Carr about the astroturf campaign, he didn't really give a clear answer.
"Well, we do have an obligation to, you know, review the record and review filings. And, to your point, we do see mass uploads but sometimes it's legitimate mass uploads on both sides of an issue. There could be a petition or letter writing campaign they go up once," he says.
Carr says he doesn't know the current status of any official investigation into the comments.
"What I can say is that back when I was general counsel [for the FCC] we were reached out to on this issue from then Attorney General Schneiderman’s office. And my understanding is that there has been some back and forth discussions or otherwise communications with them about the issue. I don't know the current status of those discussions or as you point out any letters that the chairman or the now [general counsel] has gotten on this issue," he says.
Well, some states are implementing their own net neutrality rules, or are thinking about it. Oregon is one of those, says Merkley.
But as for the rest, we'll have to wait and see.