(Senate - January 03, 2018)

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[Congressional Record Volume 164, Number 1 (Wednesday, January 3, 2018)]
[Pages S5-S8]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office []

                             NET NEUTRALITY

  Mr. NELSON. Mr. President, I would like to speak about net 
neutrality. If you don't know what that means, you really do when 
prompted because it means that when you turn on your phone, you go on 
the internet and you decide what you want to see, and what you want to 
see--or hear in the case of video--you have the right to have that 
access and to have it as speedily as any other content that is offered 
on the internet.
  Entrepreneurs who are working out of the garage of their family home 
and who have a new idea and suddenly want to get it on the internet--
because they are financially impaired since they are just starting out, 
they should have an opportunity, just as the big boys do, to get their 
ideas on the internet.
  Within the obvious boundaries of what is appropriate in language, et 
cetera, you have a right to get the content that you want and to get 
that content unimpeded on these tablets we carry around in our pockets. 
That right to get that content is threatened, and it is threatened 
because the Federal Communications Commission, on a partisan vote of 3 
to 2, has completely overturned the previous rules that had been set on 
a partisan vote the other way of 3 to 2.
  At the end of the day, what it means is that those of us in this 
Chamber, led

[[Page S6]]

off first by the Commerce Committee, are going to need a legislative 
solution, but in the meantime, chaos has been thrown into the system. 
Now, as a result of the previous year's rules having been completely 
reversed, they are going to be all tangled up in Federal court, and we 
are going to go on and on and have this fight.
  What I want to call to the attention of the Senate today is that in 
the process of the new rulemaking that resulted in this 3-to-2 vote 
that has upended everything--the process itself was flawed.
  Now, mind you, on net neutrality, the public has no ambiguity on 
this, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, as reported by MSNBC.
  Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a Wall Street Journal 
article from December 13, 2017, be printed in the Record.
  There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in 
the Record, as follows:

                          [December 13, 2017]

   WSJ--Fake Comments Hit Rule Making--Phony Submissions Target Net 

                (By James V. Grimaldi and Paul Overberg)

       A comment posted on the Federal Communications Commission's 
     public docket endorses a Trump-administration plan to repeal 
     a ``net neutrality'' policy requiring internet providers to 
     treat all web traffic the same.
       Calling the old Obama-era policy an ``exploitation of the 
     open Internet,'' the comment was posted on June 2 by Donna 
     Duthie of Lake Bluff, Ill.
       It's a fake. Ms. Duthie died 12 years ago.
       The Wall Street Journal has uncovered thousands of other 
     fraudulent comments on regulatory dockets at federal 
     agencies, some using what appear to be stolen identities 
     posted by computers programmed to pile comments onto the 
       Reports earlier this year of fraudulent comments on the FCC 
     docket prompted the Journal to investigate the phenomenon 
     there and at other federal agencies. After sending surveys to 
     nearly 1 million people--predominantly from the FCC docket--
     the Journal found a much wider problem than previously 
     reported, including nearly 7,800 people who told the Journal 
     comments posted on federal dockets in their names were fakes.
       The Journal found instances of fakes that favored 
     antiregulation stances but also comments mirroring consumer-
     groups' pro-regulation talking points, posted without 
     permission of people whose names were on them.
       Such distortions, often unknown even to the agencies 
     involved, cut against an important element of democracy, the 
     public's ability to participate in federal rule-making. The 
     public-comment process, mandated by law, can influence 
     outcomes of regulations affecting millions.
       It is a federal felony to knowingly make false, fictitious 
     or fraudulent statements to a U.S. agency.
       The scope of the fake comments is evident on the FCC 
     website in 818,000 identical postings backing its new 
     internet policy. The agency is expected on Thursday to roll 
     back President Barack Obama's 2015 rules, which 
     telecommunication companies have called onerous. Consumer 
     groups and Internet giants such as Alphabet Inc.'s Google and 
     Facebook Inc. back the Obama rules and have fought efforts by 
     FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to nix them.
       In a random sample of 2,757 people whose emails were used 
     to post those 818,000 comments, 72% said they had nothing to 
     do with them, according to a survey the Journal conducted 
     with research firm Mercury Analytics.
       ``It makes me feel like our democracy is broken,'' said 
     Jack Hirsch, chief executive of software startup, 
     who learned from the Journal his name was on a fake 
     submission supporting the Trump-administration position, 
     which he opposes, saying it would harm his San Francisco 
       Agencies generally accept public comments via email, mail 
     or hand delivery. Some let people post directly onto their 
     websites. Some require registration first or collect comments 
     and then publicly post them later.
       The Journal heard from people reporting fraudulent postings 
     under their names and email addresses at the FCC, Consumer 
     Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Energy Regulatory 
     Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission.
       One 369-word comment supporting the Obama-era net-
     neutrality rules was posted on the FCC website more than 
     300,000 times. One of those was attributed to Gloria Burney, 
     87, a retired speech therapist in Los Angeles. She isn't in 
     favor of repealing those rules, she said, ``but I never wrote 
       A comment from ``Elzor The Blarghmaster'' at 9632 Elm Road, 
     Maywood, Ill., was among the 818,000 identical FCC comments 
     backing the Trump policy. No such address could be found, 
     said Jimmie Thompson, a U.S. Postal Service carrier in 
       Comments filed with the SEC on the proposed sale of the 
     Chicago Stock Exchange include one submitted by ``Jason 
     Blake, commentator, The Wall Street Journal.'' The Journal 
     has had no employee by that name, Journal spokesman Steve 
     Severinghaus said.
       The SEC said it removed the comment. Asked what it does to 
     verify commenters' identities, the SEC said letters not 
     attributable to known people or entities ``are assessed 
     during the course of the rule-making process.''
       CFPB spokesman John Czwartacki said: ``Director [Mick] 
     Mulvaney is concerned about any inauthentic data that comes 
     to the Bureau. We intend to look into this matter further.'' 
     An agency official said the bureau doesn't verify each 
     comment and doesn't require commenters to submit the type of 
     information that might assist in authenticating their 
       FERC spokeswoman Mary O'Driscoll, asked what the agency 
     does to verify commenters' identities, said: ``If someone 
     believes that they have been misrepresented in comments filed 
     with us, they should contact us to let us know.''
       FCC spokesman Brian Hart said questionable comments on its 
     net-neutrality rule included some ``submitted in the name of 
     Superman and Batman, among others. These comments, however, 
     are generally not substantive so thus have no impact on a 
     rulemaking.'' Asked what the FCC does to verify identities, 
     he said: ``We err on the side of keeping the public record 
     open and do not have the resources to investigate every 
     comment that is filed.''
       Under the Administrative Procedure Act, agencies must take 
     comments under consideration but needn't pay heed to them. 
     The impact often comes afterward, when the regulated parties 
     appeal to the next administration, the courts or Congress, 
     which can alter a rule or slow its implementation. Failure to 
     consider comments has become a factor in litigation, with 
     judges sometimes forcing an agency to address comments it 
       ``Astroturf lobbying''--typically when an interest group 
     gins up support from individuals and characterizes it as a 
     grass-roots movement--has been around Washington for decades.
       Agencies were already swamped with comments from these mass 
     emailings of duplicate comments, which aren't considered 
     fraud if groups submitting them have authorization from 
     individuals named. The CFPB last year had such a hard time 
     managing the 1.4 million comments on its payday-lending rule 
     that it fired one contractor and hired a new one to process 
     them, according to internal emails released under the Freedom 
     of Information Act.
       As with many agencies, the CFPB opts not to put many of the 
     duplicative comments online. It posted 200,000 ``unique'' 
     comments out of the 1.4 million on its payday-lending 
       But postings the Journal uncovered went beyond being merely 
     duplicative. They included comments from stolen email 
     addresses, defunct email accounts and people who unwittingly 
     gave permission for their comments to be posted. Hundreds of 
     identities on fake comments were found in an online catalog 
     of hacks and breaches.
       While many fakes were anti-regulatory, the Journal also 
     found pro-regulatory comments on the FCC and FERC websites 
     where people said they didn't post them. In most of those 
     cases, the people surveyed said they agreed with the 
     comments, indicating that while they didn't authorize them, a 
     group or individual might have had their names in a list of 
     like-minded people, possibly from the organization posting 
     it. Some of these people said they were angry that someone 
     who had access to their email address would post it, even 
     though they agreed.
       The largest number of comments the Journal confirmed as 
     phony were to the FCC, one of few agencies to routinely post 
     email addresses with comments. Its net-neutrality rule has 
     generated 23 million comments.
       Suspicions of fakery in net-neutrality comments emerged in 
     May, when thousands of emails poured into the FCC after HBO's 
     ``Last Week Tonight with John Oliver'' urged viewers to 
     support the Obama policy. They were followed by thousands 
     backing repeal.
       Chicago programmer Chris Sinchok said he spotted a sharp 
     increase in comments that began: ``The unprecedented 
     regulatory power the Obama administration imposed on the 
     internet is smothering innovation.''
       He found a near-constant rate--1,000 every 10 minutes--
     punctuated by periods of zero comments, as if web robots were 
     turning on and off. He determined many were from hacked 
       After Mr. Sinchok and a pro-net-neutrality group, Fight for 
     the Future, blogged that they found indications thousands of 
     FCC comments might be fakes using stolen identities, New York 
     Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in May began a criminal 
       The Journal examined those ``unprecedented regulatory 
     power'' comments. Duplicates of it exceeded any other 
     comment, according to Quid Inc., a San Francisco tech firm 
     that analyzes massive amounts of content and studied the data 
     at the Journal's request.
       The comment has been posted on the FCC website more than 
     818,000 times. The Journal sent surveys to 531,000 email 
     accounts associated with that comment. More than 7,000 
     bounced back, the accounts defunct. Of the 2,757 who 
     responded, 1,994, or 72%, said the comment was falsely 
     submitted. The survey's margin of error was plus or minus 
     1.86% points.
       The survey's results are ``a very significant indication of 
     fraud,'' Mercury Analytics CEO Ron Howard said. ``Generating 
     tens and

[[Page S7]]

     sometimes hundreds of thousands of fake posts on public 
     comment websites for the purpose of swaying public opinion 
     and impacting the opinions of political decision makers is 
     wide-scale,'' he said, ``not limited to a party, not limited 
     to an issue.''
       Though a majority of those who responded agreed with the 
     comments attributed to them, many were alarmed their 
     identities had been misappropriated.
       ``How the hell is this possible ??????'' Jessica Lints of 
     Blossvale, N.Y., wrote the Journal. ``And if these people are 
     so damn concerned about this issue that I know nothing about 
     why are they not using their own names?'' Mrs. Lints, an 
     assistant Boy Scout scoutmaster, said she is careful about 
     not expressing political opinions.
       The Journal also examined 2.8 million of the 23 million 
     comments in four clusters and sent surveys to 956,000 of 
     those addresses--including the 531,000 sent to the 
     ``unprecedented regulatory power'' commenters--seeking to 
     verify the people made the comments.
       Based on the responses, three batches expressing anti-
     regulatory viewpoints were 63%, 72% and 80% bogus comments. 
     The fourth set, in favor of the old rules, was 32% bogus.
       Mr. Hart, the FCC spokesman, said the ``most suspicious 
     activity has been by those supporting Internet regulation.'' 
     He said the FCC received more than 7.5 million comments 
     consisting of the same short-form letter supporting the 
     current rules, ``all generated by a single fake e-mail 
     generator website.'' He said the FCC received more than 
     400,000 comments supporting the old rules ``from the same 
     address in Russia.''
       A review of the FCC comments by data-analytics firm Emprata 
     determined that 36% of the docket, 7.75 million comments, 
     were attributable to, a site that 
     generates one-time emails and can't receive emails. The 
     analysis was commissioned by a group of telecommunications 
     firms that support the Trump-administration proposal.
       These contained nearly identical comments, virtually all 
     opposing the proposal, Emprata said. Emprata CEO Paul 
     Salasznyk said ``our analysis was conducted in an independent 
     fashion.'' Efforts to locate 
     representatives weren't successful.
       Reports of the fake FCC comments have led some lawmakers to 
     demand probes. After Fight for the Future said it found about 
     24 people saying they hadn't posted the ``unprecedented 
     regulatory power'' comment, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New 
     Jersey asked the Justice Department to investigate those 
     comments as criminal acts.
       The Justice Department hasn't responded to the request, Mr. 
     Pallone's spokesman said. Justice spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam 
     confirmed the letter was received, declining to comment 
     further. Mr. Pallone and 10 other members last week wrote the 
     Government Accountability Office seeking an investigation. 
     The GAO said it already had plans next year to begin 
     examining the FCC's information-security controls, including 
     over internet comments.
       It is difficult to determine who is behind phony comments. 
     The Journal found clues in data embedded in online documents, 
     which showed more than 4,000 fake comments had been submitted 
     to the CFPB through IssueHound, a Richmond, Va., firm. It 
     charges interest groups to use its software and create 
     websites to gather hundreds and thousands of like-minded 
     people to write unique comments or send pre-written 
     statements to lawmakers and regulators. Its website says it 
     ``randomly selects related paragraphs and generates unique 
       Jay Thomas Smith, an IssueHound spokesman, said clients 
     ``use our program because it affords greater flexibility for 
     letter-writers, more accurately expressing the writer's views 
     on an issue,'' adding that the software ``requires human 
     input.'' He declined to comment on CFPB-rule work.
       IssueHound played a role in anomalies the Journal found on 
     the CFPB's site seeking comment on its proposal to tighten 
     payday-lending rules, set to take effect July 2019.
       Quid reviewed the 200,000 ``unique'' comments the CFPB 
     posted on its payday-lending proposal. They weren't entirely 
     unique. More than 100 sentences opposing the payday rule each 
     appeared within more than 350 different comments.
       This sentence was embedded in 492 comments: ``I sometimes 
     wondered how I would be able to pay for my high power bill, 
     especially in the hot summer and cold winters.''
       The Journal emailed about 13,000 surveys to those posting 
     comments to the CFPB site. About 120 completed surveys. Four 
     out of 10 said they didn't send the comment associated with 
     them. These comments opposed the new regulations.
       Ashley Marie Mireles, 26, said she didn't write the comment 
     posted on the CFPB's website under her name but had clues how 
     it got there. Her former employer, payday lender California 
     Check Cashing Stores, told branch personnel in Clovis, 
     Calif., to fill out an online survey after too few customers 
     did, she said. In the survey, she said she received a payday 
     loan for ``car bills.'' She had borrowed $50 to patch a tire.
       On July 8, 2016, a 217-word comment with Ms. Mireles's name 
     and email was sent to the CFPB, reading, in part: ``I had no 
     idea the bill would be as expensive as it was after I took my 
     car to the shop. To help me pay for everything, I went to get 
     a cash loan.'' Untrue, she said. Her family owns an auto shop 
     where she doesn't pay.
       Bridgette Roman, spokeswoman for California Check Cashing, 
     denied Ms. Mireles' account, saying customers were offered a 
     computer that walked them through creation of ``a customized 
     comment'' on the rule and were told it would be submitted to 
     the CFPB. ``The former employee was mistaken or confused.''
       Ms. Mireles's comment showed it originated from IssueHound 
     and, a site used by a payday-lending trade 
       The trade group, Community Financial Services Association 
     of America, used IssueHound and to send 
     comments on the payday-lending rule, said Dennis Shaul, the 
     group's CEO. Told of the Journal findings, he said: ``We 
     cannot begin to speculate as to why that is.'' He said he had 
     asked member lenders not to use coercion or gimmicks in the 
     campaign and that they generated tens of thousands of 
     handwritten notes. ``I'm very disappointed to hear this, and 
     it is not at all the outcome we expected.''
       IssueHound's Mr. Smith said: ``There is little more I can 
     say about the letters as we simply license the platform.''
       The late Ms. Duthie's phony comment was among copy-and-
     paste-style comments that dominate the FCC docket.
       One under Ms. Duthie's name was submitted with the email 
     address of her ex-husband, Peter Duthie. It began: ``FCC: Hi, 
     I'd like to comment on Internet Freedom.'' That sentence, 
     including two spaces after the colon, opened 974 comments.
       Mr. Duthie said he didn't submit it. He did file, he said, 
     a comment opposing the Trump-administration plans.

  Mr. NELSON. This article points out that net neutrality is widely 
popular. Eighty-three percent of the American public supports net 
neutrality. The other 17 percent--some of them say they don't. I don't 
know how they don't. But it is a pretty overwhelming majority--83 
percent. But even among Republicans in the surveys that have been done, 
76 percent of self-identified Republicans say they support net 
  Here is the flaw in the process the FCC used. Twenty-four million 
comments came in from supposedly ``Americans'' that were filed either 
for or against the rulemaking. There is a problem in this record that 
was built because 2 million of those comments featured stolen 
identities. It was not a real person; it was somebody else's identity. 
Some of those identities were people who have long since died. Half a 
million comments were from Russian addresses. Fifty thousand consumer 
complaints were inexplicably missing from the record.
  Let's take the part about Russian addresses. Is this beginning to 
tell us something that we know--that there was Russian interference in 
the last election? We also know from our intelligence community that 
there was Russian entrance into the voting records of some 20 States. 
Now we are seeing the Russian influence enter into the making of law--
in this case, the rulemaking--trying to influence comments, whether 
they were comments for the rulemaking or against the rulemaking. It is 
another indication that Russia indeed is intending on distorting and 
influencing the daily operations at the microscopic level--not at the 
level of an election of a President but at the microscopic level of 
influencing the development of rules to carry out laws--in this case, a 
rule that the American people feel quite strongly about. Eighty-three 
percent are in favor of net neutrality--the opposite of what the 
Republican majority on the FCC has enacted.
  Now we have at least 19 State attorneys general who have raised 
concerns. They even wrote to the Federal Communications Commission 
asking that the agency hold off on its vote to eliminate the net 
neutrality rules, which the Republican Chairman and the FCC majority 
promptly ignored. The FCC is refusing to even work with law enforcement 
to get to the bottom of this issue.
  Shouldn't the fact that there are Russian bots and people, directed 
by the Kremlin, trying to influence our government processes--shouldn't 
that be something we ought to be working on with law enforcement?
  Well, I am going to continue to raise this issue over and over, 
whether it is this agency's--the FCC's--rulemaking or other agencies' 
rulemaking, which is chronicled in this Wall Street Journal article 
that has been printed in the Record. This is deadly serious business 
because this is our democracy.
  We have to have the ability to operate in good faith that information 
that we are getting is accurate information.

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When we see this kind of evidence, we know there is a flaw in the 
system, and that flaw might actually have its source in a person named 
Vladimir Putin.
  Mr. President, I yield the floor.
  I suggest the absence of a quorum.
  The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The clerk will call the roll.
  The senior assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.
  Mr. NELSON. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for 
the quorum call be rescinded.
  The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Without objection, it is so