‘Confusing’ FCC privacy policy exposes net neutrality commenters’ emails

A conservative watchdog group used the loophole in the FCC’s privacy policy that makes commenters’ emails addresses public.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) building in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) building in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

If you commented on the FCC’s proposal to roll back net neutrality, you may not know the email address you used is available for anyone to see.

The FCC requires commenters on public proceedings and proposals to register their names and physical mailing addresses along with their comments. The FCC has two seemingly contradictory policies, one that says emails associated with comments won’t be publicly available and another that says all information submitted will be made public, Ars Technica found.

The first policy, according to an FCC spokesperson, primarily pertains to comments on blog posts, keeping contact information safe. But the second, which governs public comments on official proposals and proceedings, doesn’t. For the latter, users are warned before submitting a comment on the net neutrality proposal that any information submitted will be publicly available — but it doesn’t explicitly include emails, Ars Technica reported.

Emails aren’t required to make a comment and people tend to provide the information mainly to get an email confirmation that their comment was successfully submitted. But since the FCC makes that data public, it can be viewed via API and has been used by groups to analyze the millions of comments the anti-net neutrality proposal has already amassed.


That’s what conservative group National Legal and Policy Center did to reach the conclusion that one-fifth of the pro-net neutrality comments were fake, according to a report published last month.

“More than 465,322 pro-net neutrality comment submissions (close to 20 percent of all pro-net neutrality comments filed) were made in which either the filers’ names were being submitted with the e-mail address of an obviously different person or in which the same e-mail address was used to file multiple comments — in some cases thousands of times.”

Evan Greer, campaign director of the pro-net neutrality advocacy group Fight for the Future that first discovered the email exposure, told Ars Technica that having the unclear policies was “confusing” but “unintentional.” However, “if the result is that millions of people’s e-mail addresses are exposed without them realizing that is going to happen, that seems pretty bad and like something they should be concerned about.”

The FCC’s controversial net neutrality proposal has received a lot of criticism because it aims to undo the rules solidified in 2015, when the then-Democratic-led FCC board voted to reclassify the internet as a utility to be regulated under Title II of the Communications Act. The new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, opposed the move as a commissioner and is set to undo the rules completely this year.


Pai unveiled his proposal to reverse the 2015 decision in May. Since then, the FCC has been bombarded with more than 2.5 million comments, protests, and likely more than one distributed denial of service attack on its website led by spam bots posting identical anti-net neutrality comments.

There’s growing concern over the number of fake FCC comments have been submitted either for or against net neutrality. Democratic legislators have asked for an investigation into the DDoS attacks. And Pai has said that some of the comments were actually filed under his own name.

“This is an issue that’s impacted me personally as hundreds of comments as I’ve seen have been submitted under my own name,” Pai told USA Today.

He added that “this agency has erred on the side of openness, we want to encourage people to participate in as easy an accessible a way as possible.” That transparency, while great for the democratic process, also makes agencies’ official proceedings vulnerable to abuse.

In the case of net neutrality, too many fake comments could determine whether the rules are repealed or here to stay, USA Today reported. Failing to carefully consider public comments could result in a court overturning a a Republican-led FCC commissioner vote to repeal the current net neutrality rules.