Bots, “dead people” participating in Net Neutrality online consultation

From online ballot-stuffing to trolling, we have previously discussed the many ways that online consultations can be compromised.  The FCC’s consultation on net neutrality has become the latest victim in efforts to undermine and discredit the online citizen engagement process.

Net neutrality is the principle which states that internet service providers (ISPs), such as Verizon, AT&T, or Comcast, must treat all data the same. To put it plainly, ISPs cannot charge customers more for access or faster connections to certain content or websites. This principle has been crucial to ensuring free and equal access to information online.

However, Ajit Pai, the newly-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has indicated “plans to either roll back or decline to enforce many consumer protection regulations… including those regarding net neutrality.”

Given the high stakes involved, opponents of net neutrality have been lobbying hard to ensure that their side emerges victorious. In the online consultation, opponents have tried to influence the discussion by posting hundreds of thousands of fake comments. Many of the comments had also been posted using personal information that has been stolen, including those of dead people. Despite this, the FCC has refused to remove or investigate the source of these  comments which manufacture support for gutting neutrality legislation.

While decision-makers lament the decline in public trust, situations like these only serve to enhance political cynicism – and rightfully so. If the FCC claims that a certain percentage of participants oppose net neutrality in an effort to justify their policy decisions, how can they be trusted? The challenge is twofold: 1) acknowledging technological advances in methods which undermine the online political processes, and; 2) fighting the cynicism within government which fails to recognize the problem as long as it benefits them.

The public input process has been reinforcing the view that citizen engagement is simply for show. People simply don’t see the value in being engaged with civic society when decisions have already been made – they have no power to influence policies that affect them and their communities.

PlaceSpeak is extremely fortunate to work with many public sector organizations who genuinely do care about listening and responding to their constituents. From local governments to transportation authorities, from school districts to public health authorities, many talented people are working to turn the tide of apathy by demonstrating the value and impact of community voices. For them, it’s a matter of finding the right tools that facilitate legitimate online citizen engagement processes, where the feedback collected is trustworthy and can’t be called into question.

Organizations will need to get smarter about taking on bots, sock puppets, ballot stuffing, and the like. Digital identity authentication – the process of ensuring that people are who they say they are online – is a crucial first step to rebuilding trust in the public input process. A simple sign-up and/or verification process reduces incentives for spammers while keeping it easy and user-friendly for real, relevant participants who want to have a say. The implications for online citizen engagement are profound: decision-makers can be confident in the quality of the feedback collected, while the public is assured that feedback is coming from real people like themselves, instead of lobby groups or special interest groups.

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To get started with your online public consultation, visit placespeak.com.