This week, the US FCC finally unveiled its plans to kill net neutrality, and on the same day, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman publicly excoriated the agency for refusing to cooperate with his office's investigation into the hundreds of thousands of likely fake comments that were filed in support of ending the open web.
In a letter addressed to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Schneiderman explained that the FCC's process for considering the repeal of net neutrality protections under Title II of the Communications Act has been "corrupted by the fraudulent use of Americans' identities." He wrote:
Specifically, for six months my office has been investigating who perpetrated a massive scheme to corrupt the FCC's notice and comment process through the misuse of enormous numbers of real New Yorkers' and other Americans' identities. Such conduct likely violates state law - yet the FCC has refused multiple requests for crucial evidence in its sole possession that is vital to permit that law enforcement investigation to proceed...
In May 2017, researchers and reporters discovered that the FCC's public comment process was being corrupted by the submission of enormous numbers of fake comments concerning the possible repeal of net neutrality rules. In doing so, the perpetrator or perpetrators attacked what is supposed to be an open public process by attempting to drown out and negate the views of the real people, businesses, and others who honestly commented on this important issue. Worse, while some of these fake comments used made up names and addresses, many misused the real names and addresses of actual people as part of the effort to undermine the integrity of the comment process. That's akin to identity theft, and it happened on a massive scale.
Schneiderman's investigation has found tens of thousands of New Yorkers may have had their identities used to support the repeal of net neutrality without their knowledge. He also says that hundreds of thousands of Americans in other states could also be victims of this shady plot. To properly do his job, Schneiderman needs information that only the FCC can provide. "Yet we have received no substantive response to our investigative requests," he wrote. "None."
The state attorney general insists that this isn't about the issue of net neutrality itself, though he notes that studies show the vast majority support Title II protections. Schneiderman's investigation is into whether New Yorkers were illegally impersonated when the FCC opened the proposed rule change to public comment, as is required by federal law. An ISP-funded study in August found that 98.5 per cent of unique net neutrality comments submitted to the FCC supported maintaining the current rules. But we don't know exactly how many comments that supported the dismantling of those rules were fakes, bots, or stolen identities. It seems impossible for the FCC to legitimately say that it's followed the proper procedures until investigators have resolved this matter.
The fact is that comments supporting net neutrality could be fake as well. The National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative research group, found that "over 1.3 million additional pro-net neutrality comments submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appear to be coming from non-US filers from foreign countries." More than a million of the comments supporting net neutrality came from email addresses with a Pornhub.com domain extension.
Since there's overwhelming evidence that Americans do, in fact, support net neutrality protections, the issue here is about the FCC failing to uphold the integrity of the legally-required public comment process. Ajit Pai has publicly made it clear that he wants to repeal these protections for a long time, so there's no reason to believe that he'd even listen to what the public has to say. What's baffling is that he can't even ensure that it at least appears he wants the rules followed properly.
We've reached out to the FCC for a response to Schneiderman's accusations and will update this post when we receive a response. Considering the phone number for Pai's office that was listed on the FCC's net neutrality announcement yesterday has been disconnected, we have to imagine he's not in the mood to talk.