Smut site fingered as 'source' of a million US net neutrality comments

Bad news for the FCC because the site has 55 staff and doesn't hand out email addresses

Figueroa
Speaker ... Leah Figueroa at this year's Shmoocon

Shmoocon An analysis of comments submitted to the United States Federal Communications Commission's consultation on the future of the nation's net neutrality rules has shown the whole process of public comments was fatally flawed.

Speaking at the Shmoocon hacking conference in Washington DC, Leah Figueroa, lead data engineer at data analytics biz Gravwell, detailed how analysing net neutrality comments showed massive anomalies.

In particular, Figueroa spotted that over a million messages were sent by commenters using P*rnHub.com email addresses. Given that the super-smut site only has 55 employees, and doesn't hand out email accounts to netizens, either each staffer sent in 18,000 comments, or people were sending in volumes of rants using faked addresses.

And it's most likely the latter because the FCC did not verify whether or not someone writing in really owned the email address they provided. The whole thing shows that it was possible for people to spam the regulator with thousands upon thousands of comments, making it look as though there was huge support for or against the network neutrality protections.

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“As of July 2017 P*rnHub had only 55 employees, which means either they sent all out over 18,000 submissions per person or there was something unusual going on,” she said.

Figueroa analysed submissions from over 22 million comments to the FCC and found a lot of odd behavior. Over a thousand came from sddhrthrt@gmail.com for example, and that address is linked to an Indian GitHub repository.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that the FCC allowed batch submissions of comments on its net neutrality proposals without verifying email addresses. Figueroa said plenty of these looked looked inauthentic. Hundreds of thousands of comments were submitted at exactly midnight on four separate days in July – hardly normal behavior.

The majority of these batch submissions were anti-net neutrality, and if you strip them out only about 17 per cent of the comments actually came from likely-to-be-people logging on to the FCC’s website and filing a personal message.

Even after the batch-submitted comments were removed the pattern of comments still looks suspect. Many appeared to have come from bots and the timing of submissions didn’t always sync with the US times you’d expect. Such submissions were also typically in ALL CAPS, rather than conventional text.

After removal of the oddly-sourced-or-worded comments, the vast majority of the comments submitted directly to the FCC’s website supported net neutrality.

However, in the end it didn’t matter that much, because the Republican members of the FCC decided that comments wouldn't influence their decision. Commissioner Michael O'Rielly argued that the agency didn’t have to take comments into account when it made its decision on strictly party-political lines.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has said he is investigating the comments process on the grounds that some of his constituents may have suffered from identity theft. However, the FCC has backtracked on an earlier promise to cooperate and is now stonewalling any investigation.

American democracy – ain’t it great? ®

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