FACT CHECK: Did 23 Million Americans Voice Opposition to Net Neutrality Repeal?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey said that 23 million people voiced opposition to the proposed repeal of net neutrality rules.

“Americans do not want this. Millions of voices – 23 million people communicated with the Federal Communications Commission saying they do not want these rules changed,” he said at a tech press conference Monday.

Verdict: False

The Trump administration’s proposed repeal of net neutrality regulations that were implemented under former President Barack Obama elicited 23 million electronic comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

But analysts found a majority of the comments submitted were from fake or duplicate email addresses. Not all comments were in favor of keeping net neutrality either – taking all the comments at face value, 39 percent were in support of repeal.

Fact Check:

Net neutrality regulations require internet service providers to treat all data equally, meaning they can’t charge more to load data faster, or block content on certain websites. President Donald Trump’s appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai opposes the regulation. His plan to repeal net neutrality in favor of a “light-touch” regulatory approach sparked a massive response from both supporters and critics of net neutrality.

The FCC received 21.7 million electronic comments regarding its proposed repeal of net neutrality rules during the public comment period from April 27 to Aug. 30. Comments submitted since then have brought the total to over 23 million. That’s a staggering number compared to the 4 million comments received before the FCC approved the rules in 2015.

Even assuming every comment is legitimate, Markey incorrectly claimed that all 23 million comments are opposed to changing net neutrality rules. A report from the research firm Emprata, which was funded by a lobbying group for the telecom industry, found that 39 percent of all comments favored the repeal of net neutrality.

Independent analyses found the data from the FCC’s public comment period tricky to digest. The vast majority of comments were from form letters, disposable email addresses, bots, false identities and foreign sources.

The Pew Research Center determined that 57 percent of the comments used duplicate or disposable email addresses.  Emprata found that nearly 8 million comments (36 percent) came from disposable email addresses from FakeMailGenerator.com, and nearly 10 million comments (46 percent) came from duplicate email addresses.

Pew also found only six percent of comments were truly unique in wording and phrasing. Form letters and comments submitted multiple times made up the overwhelming majority of comments.

Many form letter submissions came from actual people. The activist group Fight for the Future set up a website that allowed people to quickly send ready-made letters in favor of keeping net neutrality, and the Taxpayer’s Protection Alliance set up a website to send form letters in favor of repeal.

But there is strong evidence that many identical comments were submitted by bots, not humans. Pew identified multiple instances where tens of thousands of comments were submitted simultaneously. On Jul. 19, for example, about 475,000 comments were submitted at the same second.

Additional analysis from data scientist Jeff Kao found that over 1 million comments that may seem unique at first glance appear to have been submitted by human-like bots that alternated words and phrases but maintained sentence structure.

“It’s scary to think that organic, authentic voices in the public debate … are being drowned out by a chorus of spambots,” Kao said in a post.

Thousands of comments used made-up identities, signed by generic names like “John Smith,” “Pat M” or “Net Neutrality.” Many more used stolen names and addresses of real people. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched an investigation into identity theft in the FCC public comment process, saying in an open letter that “hundreds of thousands of Americans were likely victimized.”

There’s also possible foreign influence in the comments, even though net neutrality rules only apply in the U.S. Over a million comments came from foreign email addresses, nearly all in support of net neutrality. That includes 445,000 comments from Russian email accounts, though it’s unclear if those comments came from actual Russians or originated from bots in the U.S.

The FCC will vote on repealing net neutrality rules on Thursday.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter