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Anti-net neutrality spammers are impersonating real people to flood FCC comments

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This week, thousands posted comments on the FCC’s website in response to a proposed rollback of net neutrality internet protections, weighing in on whether and how to defend the open internet. John Oliver encouraged viewers to post to a public comment thread with support for strong regulation, and a massive number of people did so. But many others appeared to have a different point of view.

“The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation,” read thousands of identical comments posted this week, seemingly by different concerned individuals. The comment goes on to give a vigorous defense of deregulation, calling the rules a “power grab” and saying the rollback represents “a positive step forward.” By midday Tuesday, the thread was inundated with versions of the comment. A search of the duplicated text found more than 58,000 results as of press time, with 17,000 of those posted in the last 24 hours alone.

The comments seem to be posted by different, real people, with addresses attached. But people contacted by The Verge said they did not write the comments and have no idea where the posts came from.

“That doesn’t even sound like verbiage I would use,” says Nancy Colombo of Connecticut, whose name and address appeared alongside the comment.

“I have no idea where that came from,” says Lynn Vesely, whose Indiana address also appeared, and who was surprised to hear about the comment.

The people said they have no special link to FCC activism or the telecommunications industry, and could not think of any time they had knowingly entered their information for a similar campaign. “This is definitely not my style,” Colombo says. “This sounds like a hacker or an outsider.” Others contacted by ZDNet also denied posting the comments.

Groups on both sides of the net neutrality debate have long tried to organize grassroots campaigns, and some have turned to forms of automation, using techniques such as asking people to fill out an auto-generated form, or suggesting a specific message to send to the FCC. After Oliver’s call to action, several people posted variations of Oliver’s suggested language, and some used obviously fake identities to do so.

Versions of a different anti-net neutrality comment were also appearing on the thread two weeks ago, but the fact that real identities are being used without permission is a strange twist. The FCC declined to comment on whether it was aware of the comments or whether it has dealt with similar issues in the past.

It’s unclear who may have orchestrated the comments. A line of the language used in the comment, specifically about the “unprecedented regulatory power [of] the Obama Administration,” has some resemblance to a 2010 press release from the Center for Individual Freedom, a conservative, anti-net neutrality group.

We contacted the group to ask whether it had organized a campaign to send this message. “Yes, the Center for Individual Freedom is asking our supporters and other activists across the nation to submit comments,” a spokesperson said. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the wording [of the email] is similar to the wording CFIF used in 2010 as our messaging on this general issue has been consistent for nearly a decade.”

The spokesperson said that CFIF had sent emails to supporters and posted a form with the text on “digital media platforms across the internet,” allowing people to sign their names and addresses. They also provided a screenshot of the form, posted here. This doesn’t mean the CFIF is behind this spamming campaign. But it’s plausible that whoever sent the bogus comments used this form (or at least the message from it) to do so. “Your question about the possibility of someone corrupting the effort is something we need to look into,” said the spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the FCC comment thread has been a source of controversy for other reasons. After Oliver’s plea, the comment system became intermittently inaccessible. For a time, it was widely believed that traffic directed by Oliver had overwhelmed the FCC’s system. But the agency later said it was hit by denial-of-service attacks that rendered the system inoperable.

It’s unclear how, or if, traffic from Oliver — as well as the apparently automated comments — may have played a role, but two senators and some activist groups have requested more information on the DDoS incident. Comments on the net neutrality thread will be accepted until mid-August.

Update 1PM ET: Added comments and screenshot from the Center for Individual Freedom.