New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released an open letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, accusing the agency of stonewalling his office’s investigation into what he called a “massive scheme” to inundate the FCC’s public net neutrality review process with fake comments.
“The process the FCC has employed to consider potentially sweeping alterations to current net neutrality rules has been corrupted by the fraudulent use of Americans’ identities and the FCC has been unwilling to assist my office in our efforts to investigate this unlawful activity,” Schneiderman wrote to Pai, a Republican appointed to head the agency by President Donald Trump.
Net neutrality rules prevent internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others from charging more to access certain websites. The rules were established to provide an equal playing field online.
Under Democratic leadership, the FCC approved net neutrality rules in 2015, but the agency is now controlled by Republican appointees and has taken a different stance under the Trump administration. Pai rolled out the FCC’s plan to scrap the Obama-era rules ahead of a vote scheduled to take place on Dec. 14.
The process allows the public to comment on the changes and weigh in on the issue before the agency makes its final decision.
“Enormous numbers of fake comments concerning the possible repeal of net neutrality rules” were first reported in May of this year, Schneiderman’s letter said.
The false comments attempted “to drown out and negate the views of the real people, businesses, and others who honestly commented on this important issue,” according to Schneiderman’s letter.
An FCC spokesperson told ABC News Schneiderman’s “so-called investigation is nothing more than a transparent attempt by a partisan supporter of the Obama Administration’s heavy-handed Internet regulations to gain publicity for himself.”
“The potential impersonation of hundreds of thousands of Americans in order to influence the policy-making process should concern everyone—especially the FCC,” Schneiderman’s office responded. “Yet rather than cooperate with our investigation, the Commission has stonewalled it, and now offers political attacks to distract from the core issue—the manipulation of the FCC’s own regulatory process.”
In his letter, Schneiderman writes that he has “long publicly advocated for strong net neutrality rules,” but said his investigation is about “the right to control one’s own identity and prevent the corruption of a process designed to solicit the opinion of real people and institutions.”
The FCC said it would base its decision on facts and legal arguments, not on repetitive form letters that surface in the commenting process, the spokesperson said. The agency received some 7.5 million comments consisting of the same form letter and it also received over 400,000 comments from the same address in Russia in support of the Obama-era rule, according to the spokesperson.
Many of the fake comments “misused the real names and addresses of actual people as part of the effort to undermine the integrity of the comment process,” the letter continued, noting that “hundreds of thousands of Americans likely were victimized in the same way.”
Schneiderman said the false use of names and addresses amounts to a crime “akin to identity theft, and it happened on a massive scale.” The FCC, Schneiderman wrote, “has refused to provide … information that is critical to the investigation.”