The Wall Street Journal recently posted a front-page article entitled “Thousands of Fake Comments on Net Neutrality.” Sadly the title is misleading: “Millions” would have been a more appropriate characterization.
Millions of comments have been submitted to the Federal Communications Commission in its proceeding on Internet regulation popularly known as “network neutrality.” The Journalinterviewed a sample of individuals whose names were used in the filed comments, and a dismaying number were unaware that comments were filed on their behalf. Their identity had been stolen.
Public attention over the past year has been riveted to the possibility of foreign, particularly Russian, interference in the American political process. No less should be the concern that computer hackers are attempting to influence our government regulatory process.
Public comments in government proceedings are intended to be a foundation of democratic participation. When such comments are fraudulently filed on a large scale, everyone loses. As a nation, we inevitably begin to doubt the legitimacy of our government institutions and the decisions they make.
A few months ago, I proposed a simple economic solution: charge for the privilege of filing comments in a government proceeding. When economists see an excess of an activity attempting to influence a valuable outcome, we naturally assume a pricing imperfection. When government agencies accept all comments—even those generated by computer hackers--free of charge to influence government policy, it is not surprising that those seeking to influence a proceeding would hire computer hackers to flood the proceeding with falsified filings. Indeed, they have.
A charge of a U.S. postage stamp, roughly $0.50, for submissions to a federal proceeding would reduce if not fully eliminate the hacking. A charge of the imputed cost of time for a government employee to review and to consider a filed comment, at least $50, would all but eliminate hacking. Our faith in the legitimacy of government proceedings would be restored. It would be a small price to pay to preserve democracy.