Groups accuse FCC of helping net neutrality advocates file comments

The agency says it communicated with groups submitting large numbers of comments in an effort to keep its system from crashing

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission engaged in the worst kind of "partisan politics" by working closely with net neutrality advocates to ensure their comments were filed with the agency, but not extending the same courtesy to the other side, a coalition of groups opposed to the regulations said in a sharply worded letter to the agency.

"Increasingly ... FCC staff appear to be disregarding arguments that do not fit a preconceived agenda; and worse, they may be actively manipulating media coverage around controversial issues," said the letter, sent Thursday by a dozen conservative groups, including TechFreedom, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and FreedomWorks. Instead of working as a bipartisan and collegial body, "the FCC appears to be engaging in the worst aspects of partisan politics," the letter added.

An FCC official disputed the allegations, saying the agency's conversations with net neutrality advocates during a crush of comments filed in the days leading up to the agency's Sept. 15 comment deadline were intended to keep the FCC's dated online comments system from crashing. The FCC's discussions with groups filing large numbers of comments related to an online pro-net neutrality protest Sept. 10 were part of an effort to keep the agency's Electronic Comment Filing System up for everyone to use, said Kim Hart, an FCC spokeswoman.

"The FCC IT team worked with multiple parties to ensure everyone was able to successfully submit comments to the agency on the open Internet proceeding," Hart said. "After receiving a surge of comments leading up to the reply comment deadline, the IT team created a third option for filing bulk comments."

The FCC announced Sept. 11, through a public blog post, a new way to file comments, Hart noted. It's unclear if net neutrality advocates first contacted the FCC about concerns about the health of the ECFS or if FCC staffers contacted advocates submitting large numbers of comments.

The objections from the conservative groups stem from a Sept. 24 Washington Post story, which says FCC staff worked closely with pro-net neutrality groups to keep the comments system up. Emails sent between FCC staffers and net neutrality activists keeping an eye on the comments system's health "revealed an unusual collaboration," the story said.

Net neutrality advocates and FCC staffers "worked together to correct the record" related to how many comments were being filed in the final days, the story said.

By working with net neutrality advocates to make sure their comments were filed and the numbers were reported, the FCC showed "severe bias and a lack of impartiality" on net neutrality, said Mike Wendy, director of MediaFreedom, a free-market advocacy group that signed the conservative groups' letter. While FCC staff was exchanging emails with net neutrality advocates, "they made no similar outreach to us," he said.

The FCC received more than 3.7 million public comments on its net neutrality proposal, by far a record number of comments in an FCC proceeding, with a large number of the comments favoring new rules. American Commitment, one of the groups signing Thursday's letter, submitted more than 800,000 comments opposed to a government "takeover" of the Internet before the FCC's deadline.

Many of the comments generated during the Sept. 10 Internet slowdown protest called on the FCC to reclassify broadband as a regulated public utility, a position that conflicts with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to pass a narrower set of net neutrality rules that could allow broadband providers to engage in "commercially reasonable" traffic management.

The FCC's work to make sure comments were filed resulted in a "completely lopsided media narrative describing a groundswell of public support" for the FCC reclassifying broadband as a regulated, common carrier service, the conservative groups said.

The conservative groups' objections amount to "a conspiracy theory trying to undermine the millions of regular people who are speaking out to support open Internet and an FCC trying to deal with an antiquated computer system," said Marvin Ammori, a lawyer who serves on the boards of net neutrality advocates Fight for the Future and Demand Progress.

"The FCC would've worked with anyone," Ammori said by email. "Essentially they wanted us not to crash their system and we worked with them to figure out how not to crash their system but to still get the comments in. Their technology isn't designed to take so many comments."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags telecommunicationregulationMike WendyKim HartDemand ProgressCompetitive Enterprise InstituteinternetFight for the FutureInternet service providersMediaFreedomFreedomWorksTom WheelerTechFreedomMarvin AmmoriU.S. Federal Communications Commissiongovernmentbroadband

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