More than half of the 21.7 million public comments submitted to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission about net neutrality this year used temporary or duplicate email addresses and appeared to include false or misleading information, the Pew Research Center said on Wednesday.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed by President Donald Trump, proposed in April to scrap the 2015 landmark net neutrality rules, moving to give broadband service providers sweeping power over what content consumers can access.
Pai has said the action would remove heavy-handed internet regulations. Critics have said it would let internet service providers give preferential treatment to some sites and apps and allow them to favor their own digital content.
From April 27 to Aug. 30 the public was able to submit comments to the FCC on the topic electronically. Of those, 57 percent used either duplicate email addresses or temporary email addresses, while many individual names appeared thousands of times in the submissions, Pew said.
For example, "Pat M" was listed on 5,910 submissions, and the email address firstname.lastname@example.org was used in 1,002 comments. TV host John Oliver supported keeping net neutrality earlier this on his HBO talk show.
The flood of purportedly fake comments has made it difficult to interpret the public's true thinking on net neutrality and has even spurred New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate for the last six months who posted the comments to the FCC website.
Pew did not say how many of the comments supported or opposed the FCC's proposal. With three Republican and two Democratic commissioners, the FCC is all but certain to approve the repeal.
Pew found that only 6 percent of submitted comments were unique while the rest had been submitted multiple times, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of times.
Thousands of identical comments were also submitted in the same second on at least five occasions. On July 19 at precisely 2:57:15 p.m. ET, 475,482 comments were submitted, Pew said, adding that almost all were in favor of net neutrality.
"In fact, the seven most-submitted comments (six of which argued against net neutrality regulations) comprise 38 percent of all the submissions over the four-month comment period," the study said.
Pew said its analysis of the submissions "present challenges to anyone hoping to understand the attitudes of the concerned public regarding net neutrality."
The regulatory agency will vote at a Dec. 14 meeting on Pai's plan to rescind the rules championed by Democratic former President Barack Obama.
The rules bar broadband providers from blocking or slowing down access to content or charging consumers more for certain content, and treated internet service providers like public utilities.
(Reporting by Chris Sanders; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)