net neutrality

Net neutrality repeal vote demanded to be delayed by US politicians and lawyers

Members of Congress and Attorneys General have written to Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requesting that he delay an imminent vote on net neutrality, following mounting evidence that millions of comments submitted in a public consultation on the issue were faked.

Net neutrality is the principle that all online content is treated the same. This means that whether a user is watching a film on Netflix or Amazon Prime, their network provider will allow them to stream both at the same rate.

Regulations to enshrine net neutrality into law were introduced by the Obama administration. This prevents telecommunications companies from prioritising, slowing down or blocking specific content.

Now, the Trump-appointed Pai is in the process of rolling back net neutrality protections. His repeal is highly controversial and polls suggest that it is opposed by most US citizens.

A public consultation on the issue attracted a record 22 million comments. Studies have suggested that a significant proportion of these comments were faked, with many posted by bots, using the names and addresses of both deceased people and US citizens still very much alive. This is common identify theft and punishable under US law. A study by the Pew Research Centre found that 57 per cent of comments were submitted using temporary or duplicate addresses and 94 per cent were submitted multiple times. The fraudulent comments are overwhelmingly in favour of the FCC’s repeal.

In response to this news, many public figures have called on Pai to delay the imminent vote among FCC members which will signal the end of net neutrality protection. Last year, 28 Democratic Senators, including Bernie Sanders, wrote to Pai demanding that the vote is delayed. Republicans in Congress are now joining their Democrat colleagues in calling for a delay to the vote.

Now, 18 attorney generals have joined calls to delay the vote, while Pai takes “immediate action” to investigate the fraudulent comments. This follows a strongly worded letter from State Attorney General for New York Eric Schneiderman, who reported that tens of thousands of New York constituents may have had their identities stolen for use in fake comments and two million of the comments are likely to have been falsified.

In a letter to Pai, the 18 attorney generals wrote that: “Recent attempts by New York Attorney General Schneiderman to investigate supposed comments received by the FCC have revealed a pattern of facts that should raise alarm bells for every American about the integrity of the democratic process.”

“A careful review of the publicly available information revealed a pattern of fake submissions using the names of real people. In fact, there may be over one million fake submissions from across the country,” they wrote. “This is akin to identity theft on a massive scale and theft of someone’s voice in a democracy is particularly concerning.”

Other high-profile individuals who have spoken out in favour of protecting net neutrality include Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, and celebrities such as Cher and Mark Ruffalo. July’s “day of action to save net neutrality” was described as the “largest online protest in history”, and its 50,000 participants included Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla, Reddit, Netflix and PornHub.

Further protests have attempted to draw attention to Pai’s alleged vested interests in rolling back net neutrality, for instance, by projecting the words “Property of Verizon” onto the front of the FCC headquarters. Pai is a former executive at Verizon; telecommunications giants like Verizon and Comcast will be the most obvious beneficiaries of a rollback of net neutrality protections. These companies could profit by offering websites the opportunity to prioritise their content, giving them an edge over competitors.

Despite widespread protest, Pai has made it clear that the vote will go ahead as planned, even releasing a video mocking critics of the repeal.

Meanwhile, Washington-based legislators are already looking ahead of the likely rollback of net neutrality protections. Governor Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and others have announced a plan to continue to require internet providers to offer the same service to all online content, even after a federal rollback of these requirements.

“Washington State is going to stand up for innovation,” said Governor Inslee at a press conference. “It is going to stand up for consumers and it is going to stand up for an open internet.”

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