The argument over net neutrality is tainted, and here’s why we in aviation should be worried.
The battle over net neutrality is heating up…again…only this time the dialog features a lot of robots weighing in on the subject. Net neutrality is the current longtime policy under which Internet providers are not allowed to give bandwidth or access preferences to web services. That policy is tremendously popular with the public, but it’s under review by the FCC, which wants to give ISPs free rein to throttle bandwidth and potentially deny access to sites.
We as pilots care about the issue because just about all of us use the Internet for everything from downloading updates to our panel mount Garmin navigator to grabbing a last minute weather briefing on our iPhone from the ramp of the remote field we diverted to the night before. None of us want to risk the local service provider throttling down ForeFlight downloads or The Weather Channel. So I’m guessing that we pilots are largely big supporters of net neutrality.
But there is a frightening element to the battle raging over the FCC proposal on the subject. As pilots know, when an agency, like the FCC or FAA, proposes a rule, we citizens get to weigh in on it. Hooray for democracy. Except, not so fast. In the case of the latest FCC NPRM, there have been many millions of comments made by what are apparently fake email addresses. According to a story in the Washington Examiner on the subject, “citizens” have submitted 7.5 million comments on the NPRM. Unfortunately, it appears that well over two million of them were from bots, accounts set up automatically in order to do whatever the will of the people setting them up happens to be. In this case, nearly 50,000 comments came from Russian accounts on a single day, and in many cases the names of the commenters “showed up thousands of times in comment submissions.”
The debate over net neutrality is a big deal for all of us, but the Russians should mind their own business when it comes to our airwaves, and airways. And for the record, just about every one of those nearly 50,000 emails voiced robotic support for net neutrality, which, again, is against the administration’s proposal.
Beyond the issue of the Internet, which matters greatly to all of us, we pilots should be especially worried. The FCC rulemaking debacle makes clear that the current process we employ for public comments across all federal agencies is tremendously, perhaps fatally, flawed. And it’s not just the Russians, either. Any entity, foreign or domestic, with the will to subvert the system and the means to create thousands or millions comments supporting their position can have a huge sway in the final decisions the FAA makes that effect all of us. It could happen with ATC privatization, too.
Nobody in aviation is talking about this yet, but we need to insist as a block that Congress takes steps to safeguard the process of public commenting on FAA notices of proposed rulemaking. We the pilots are supposed to be the ones informing the FAA’s creation of aviation regulations, and we must take steps to ensure our voice is heard and that the opinions of those trying to illegally subvert the system go straight to the spam folder, where they belong.