A bot is thought to be behind the posting of thousands of messages to the FCC's website, in an apparent attempt to influence the results of a public solicitation for feedback on net neutrality.
Late last month, FCC chairman Ajit Pai announced his agency's plans to roll back an Obama-era framework for net neutrality, which rule that internet providers must treat all internet content equally.
Since then, the FCC's public comments system has been flooded with a barrage of comments -- well over half-a-million responses at the time of writing -- in part thanks to comedian John Oliver, who raised the issue on his weekly show on Sunday. He asked Americans to leave comments in favor of keeping the rules. The FCC later said that it was hit by "multiple" cyberattacks shortly after the show aired designed to "bombard the FCC's comment system with a high amount of traffic to our commercial cloud host." The FCC, however, offered no evidence of the attacks, with at least one pro-net neutrality group expressing skepticism of the FCC's claims.
But a sizable portion of those comments are fake and repeating the same manufactured response.
So much so that more than 128,000 identical comments have been posted since the feedback doors were opened, now representing a significant slice of the comments on the FCC's feedback docket.
"The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation," the comment says. "I urge the Federal Communications Commission to end the bureaucratic regulatory overreach of the internet known as Title II and restore the bipartisan light-touch regulatory consensus that enabled the internet to flourish for more than 20 years."
The comments follow the same pattern: The bot appears to cycle through names in an alphabetical order, leaving the person's name, postal address, and zip code.
We reached out to two-dozen people by phone, and we left voicemails when nobody picked up. A couple of people late Tuesday called back and confirmed that they had not left any messages on the FCC's website. One of the returning callers specifically said they didn't know what net neutrality was, and a third person reached in a Facebook message Tuesday also confirmed that they had not left any comments on any website.
The bot is likely automatically filing the comments through the FCC's public comment system API, which allows anyone with a free-to-obtain API key to automatically submit comments.
But we don't know where the bot got its names and addresses -- though we suspect it may be from public voter registration records or an older data breach.
We examined individual contribution filings with the Federal Election Commission and found no correlation with names and addresses found on the FCC's comment site. And without email addresses, we weren't able to enumerate entries with breach tools, like Have I Been Pwned, to see if there was a common match.
This so-called "astroturfing" technique was first spotted on several different threads (and many more) on news sharing site Reddit.
But a key question remains: Who's behind the bot?
Several people on those Reddit threads pointed out that part of the bot's comment comes from a 2010 press release by the Center for Individual Freedom (CFIF), which vehemently opposes net neutrality in any form. On Wednesday, the group's president Jeff Mazzella confirmed that a "digital media effort that includes a letter campaign" was the source of the block of text, but rejected that CFIF was using bots "in any way, shape or form." Mazzella provided a screenshot by email of the email that was sent to its members.
It doesn't mean CFIF is behind the spamming effort. But it doesn't explain how the exact names and addresses of unwitting people were used in the flooding campaign without their permission.
It's also not the first time the FCC's own commenting system has been hijacked to push anti-net neutrality views.
According to a Vice News report from 2014, another anti-net neutrality lobby group working on behalf of the broadband industry hired a public relations firm, the DCI Group, known for its various astroturfing campaigns, and was accused of trying to fake consumer opposition to net neutrality.
An email to the DCI Group went unreturned Tuesday. When asked about the supposed bot on its site, a spokesperson for the FCC said the agency does not comment on individual filings.
Comments on the FCC site will be open until mid-August. This case is certainly one we will keep a close eye on.
Updated at 6:10pm: with comment from CFIF.