A couple of weeks ago, it was discovered that a significant number of anti-net neutrality comments on the FCC's website were being fraudulently attributed to real people. The pro-net neutrality advocacy group Fight for the Future proceeded to set up a website to raise awareness of the problem and collect more evidence of the obvious astroturfing going on. This week, the group revealed that the most hated company in America had sent them a cease and desist letter.
Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts. Photo: Getty
Comcastroturf.com explains to the public that "someone has submitted nearly half a million anti-net neutrality comments to the FCC, many of which appear to be completely fake -- using stolen names and addresses", and gives anyone an opportunity to check if their name is being used without their knowledge. Earlier this week, Fight for the Future released a statement to announce that Comcast's attorneys had sent them a cease and desist order that insists the group "take all steps necessary to see that the Domain Name [Comcastroturf.com] is assigned to Comcast".
The full shady ordeal going on with the FCC's comment section is complicated, but it's generally understood that botnets are being used to make it appear that the public is in favour of the FCC's proposal to end Title II protections of net neutrality in the US. The FCC announced that it would honour the fake comments in its review process and it reopened its temporarily closed system to take in more public opinion until August 16. With Comcastroturf, Fight for the Future asks telecoms to join them in the fight to remove these fraudulent comments from consideration. From the site:
There is a long sordid history of the telecom industry funding shady "astroturf" organisations to poison the political process and do their dirty work. In 2014, telecom allies even submitted suspicious emails to Congress. If companies like Comcast are funding this type of illegal activity, their customers and the general public deserve to know about it. If they're not funding it, they should condemn these fake comments and tell the FCC to disregard them.
Gizmodo spoke with Fight for the Future's campaign director, Evan Greer, about the situation, and she explained to us that the "name for the site is just a clever play on words and is clearly intended to represent the telecom industry broadly". The group's statement also says that the "claims are legally baseless, since the site is clearly a form of First Amendment protected political speech and makes no attempt to impersonate Comcast".
We reached out to Comcast for comment but no one has gotten back to us at the time of writing. A spokesperson did reply to Ars Technica and they had this to say:
So, it took less than 24 hours for the company to decide that this move is not a good look.
Comcast's spokesperson also added that the company supports net neutrality but "Title II does not equal net neutrality".
"Comcast is lying," Greer said. "They want to be able to charge websites fees to reach an audience, and squeeze all of us for more money. When they say they support net neutrality but oppose Title II, it's like they're saying they support free speech but oppose the First Amendment. The courts have been extremely clear that Title II is the only legally sound way to enforce net neutrality and ban throttling, blocking and paid prioritisation."
Fight for the Future never intended to take down their site and now that the legal pressure seems to be off, they won't have to. They still hope to gather more evidence about the fake comments and have them thrown out. Ideally, they'd also like to see a criminal prosecution for the responsible party. Greer sees this as illustrative of the importance of net neutrality, saying, "If Ajit Pai's plan is enacted, there would be nothing preventing Comcast from simply blocking sites like Comcastroturf.com that are critical of their corporate policies."