The Federal Communications Commission says it wants to hear from you about the future of net neutrality. But in opening its virtual doors to the public, it’s also opened them to spammers and trolls, some of whom might have even managed to knock the FCC’s site offline this past week.
On the one hand, these problems are mere hassles: The FCC’s site was only down for a few hours, and the flood of spam was easy to identify. On the other hand, they show just how hard it is to turn the web into a platform for democratic participation. Just look at any comments section on the internet.
If government agencies can’t find a way to stop spammers and trolls, their digital platforms could become useless.
The promise of digital democracy goes something like this: In the early days of the United States, few people could travel to the capital to voice their opinions on the issues of the day. Mail took weeks to deliver. That necessitated representatives who could come together and work full-time in a single location. But in the digital age, communications travel nearly instantly, removing or at least dramatically lowering the barriers to participation. Representative democracy still has many qualities to recommend it as a form of government, but logistical necessity is not one of them. Want to debate just about anyone, on any issue, from just about anywhere? Welcome to Twitter.
Or, if you’re especially interested in sounding off on net neutrality, welcome to the FCC’s website. The agency’s call for input on this seemingly wonkish policy topic has already attracted hundreds of thousands of public comments. The question now is how the government should handle all this democracy.
In 2014, comedian and Last Week Tonight host John Oliver did the seemingly unthinkable: He helped turn net neutrality into a rousing mainstream issue. This past Sunday, he called on viewers to ask the FCC to keep the net neutrality rules it passed in early 2015 instead of throwing them out. To make weighing in easier, Oliver pointed to a cheeky web address that would redirect people to a form they needed to fill out in order to leave a comment on the FCC site.
Hours later, the FCC site went offline. Initial reports suggested it was due to a surge of commenters spurred by Oliver, but on Monday the FCC issued a statement claiming it had been the victim of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.
More recently, observers noticed that more than 128,000 of the 735,000 comments received so far were filed with identical text complaining that the FCC’s net neutrality rules are “smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation.”
The Verge discovered that the names and addresses used for this flood of cloned comments appear to have come from a leaked spam database known as Special K. The text was taken from a conservative group called the Center for Individual Freedom, which encouraged its members to send a form letter to the FCC but denies spamming the site.
A similar form-letter campaign from the group American Commitment (first spotted by Motherboard) has resulted in more than 2,000 comments so far.
There are also more than 2,000 pro-Title II comments filed under the name “John Oliver,” as well as a few that hurl racial slurs at FCC chair Ajit Pai or threaten him with death. In other words, the FCC’s net neutrality comments are not that different from Twitter—death threats, racism, and maybe even spam bots promoting political causes.
Other government bodies, notably Congress, are also currently dealing with a deluge of public comments. As a result, activists often tell people to call their representatives on the phone instead of using apps or email—or, better yet, visit them in person at a town hall meeting. So much for digital democracy.
Online voting—not just for candidates but for actual laws—is perhaps the most utopian vision of democracy via the internet. Instead of voting for representatives, you could propose and vote on bills yourself. Or delegate your vote to other people, a more ad hoc network of representatives distributed across the internet. Such visions might sound plausible in theory, but organizations like Black Box Voting have long argued that there’s no way to keep people’s digital votes secret while also making it possible to audit the vote. In other words, pure online democracy would be much harder to trust or verify.
Instead, most of today’s digital democracy advocates favor using software like Democracy OS, Liquid Feedback, or Madison to let people discuss policy ideas, both with each other and their elected representatives. These tools have been used by governments big and small to post the text of bills or regulations as well as let the public suggest changes, comment on certain passages, or vote on specific ideas. You can think of these platforms as high-tech alternatives—or complements—to traditional town hall meetings. Unlike simply writing a letter to your representative, these tools could, in theory, enable citizens to come together to reach compromises or understandings. And unlike town hall meetings, anyone can participate from the comfort of their own homes, at whatever time is convenient—a potential boon for, say, single parents or people who work odd hours. By reducing the barriers to entry, digital platforms could help the government capture a more representative sample of citizen voices, instead of only hearing from the people who have both the time and passion to show up in person. The catch is that these types of platforms are just as vulnerable to harassment and spam as social media or the comments sections of news sites.
For Congress, part of the problem is personnel: If representatives could hire more staffers, they could get more out of their digital mailbags. Better tech would help as well. But what’s been happening at the FCC this week underscores the potential for digital democracy to be undermined by fraud, incivility, and security holes. While commercial social networks can moderate content and ban problem users, governments will have to tread lightly to avoid the accusations of censorship that would likely arise if they were to start jettisoning spam, trolling, and offensive comments the way commercial sites do.
At the same time, if government agencies can’t find a way to stop their sites from being flooded by spammers and trolls, their digital platforms could become useless. Then it’s right back to the old town hall. Democracy is hard, and the digital version doubly so. That’s the price, it seems, of participation.