The Federal Communications Commission’s Office of Inspector General has agreed to cooperate with New York’s investigation into allegedly fake public comments on net neutrality that were posted to the commission’s website, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Monday.
Meanwhile, an FCC member called on the commission to delay a scheduled Dec. 14 vote on repealing net neutrality rules enacted under the Obama administration until an investigation can be completed.
During a news conference in Manhattan, the Democratic attorney general said he received notification Monday morning that the FCC’s inspector general’s office would offer assistance in Schneiderman’s probe into thousands of possibly phony comments that were left on the FCC’s public comment section on the topic of net neutrality, the existing principle that internet service providers—such as Comcast or Verizon—can’t slow down, speed up or block internet access for some web sites relative to others. The FCC received a total of 21.7 million comments but a Pew Research Report found 57 percent of the comments used either duplicate or temporary email addresses and many individual names reappeared thousands of times.
Schneiderman, along with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who is a lawyer, called on the FCC to delay the vote rolling back net neutrality rules, which is expected to be approved by the committee later this month.
“It is clear that our process for serving the public interest is broken and I do not believe that the agency should move forward until a credible investigation is completed. So I call on my colleagues to halt this vote until we get to the bottom of what has happened with these stolen identities and the quality of our public record,” said Rosenworcel, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to the FCC. Before entering public service, Rosenworcel practiced communications law at Drinker Biddle & Reath.
The New York Attorney General’s Office also has introduced an online tool that the public can use to see if their identity was used to post a comment on the site without their knowledge or consent.
In an open letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai published on the website Medium on Nov. 21, Schneiderman said he was investigating a “massive scheme to corrupt the FCC’s notice and comment process” through the use of fake public comments on the subject of net neutrality.
Schneiderman had argued that “hundreds of thousands of identical anti-net neutrality comments under the names and addresses of unwitting Americans” constitutes illegal impersonation and misuse of a person’s identity.
Schneiderman, a Democrat who has been a longtime nemesis of Republican President Donald Trump, said his office first contacted the FCC in June for records “related to its public comment system that were necessary to investigate which bad actor or actors were behind the misconduct,” he said in his open letter to Pai. Between June and November, Schneiderman’s office requested logs and “other records” from the FCC nine times, but has received “no substantive response to our investigative requests. None,” Schneiderman said in the letter to Pai.
Since the open letter was published late last month, roughly 3,000 people from across the country have reached out to Schneiderman’s office, including 350 New Yorkers, claiming that their names were used to submit comments without their knowledge, Schneiderman said. One of the people whose name was used to submit a fake net neutrality comment included Schneiderman’s assistant press secretary, he said.
The inquiry into the fake comments began in the spring, Schneiderman said, amid media reports and research claiming that several people were impersonated by anti-net neutrality commenters and allegations that bots were being used to submit comments opposing net neutrality rules.
Schneiderman said his team “discovered lots of anecdotal evidence” that some of the comments left on the FCC website appeared to not be legitimate, which ultimately led to his office’s investigation.
Based on Schneiderman’s investigation, residents of California, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas may have also had their personal information used to submit comments on net neutrality, Rosenworcel said.
Pai, who was once the associate general counsel for Verizon and was nominated to the commission by Obama, has favored rolling back net neutrality regulations, an Obama-era rule that treats broadband like a public utility. Pai, who was appointed by Trump to lead the FCC, has argued that “these heavy-handed regulations” restrict internet service providers and make it harder for providers to build out their networks, he said in a statement last month.
The FCC did not immediately reply when asked why it decided to cooperate with the investigation or whether it would delay the vote.