The Federal Communications Commission is expected later this month to repeal landmark regulations that aim to ensure that all websites, large and small, are treated equally by Internet service providers.
But the attorney general of New York and a Democratic commissioner at the FCC say the agency should delay the crucial vote on net neutrality. They are part of a mounting backlash of critics who have seized on what they say are millions of fake or automated comments submitted to the agency that have corrupted the policymaking process.
Public comments play an important role at the FCC, which typically solicits feedback from the public before it votes to make significant policy changes. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at a news conference Monday that widespread irregularities tied to net neutrality feedback, including at least 1 million phony comments, have tainted the public commenting process. The allegations are buttressing a campaign by online activists and government officials who oppose the FCC's plan to dismantle net neutrality rules.
In a review of FCC comments over the past six months, Schneiderman's office found that at least 1 million submissions may have impersonated Americans, including as many as 50,000 New York residents — a potential violation of state law. Millions more comments probably were submitted by nonexistent people, he said. Still, according to Schniederman, the FCC has refused to provide help to determine who may be responsible for the alleged fake commenting. Schneiderman said that the inspector general's office of the FCC offered its help only Monday morning, ahead of the news conference.
Schneiderman called for a federal investigation and for the FCC to push back its planned vote to strip net neutrality rules. “They just have to stop this vote,” he said. “You cannot conduct a legitimate vote on a rulemaking proceeding if you have a record that is in shambles, as this one is.”
Tina Pelkey, a spokeswoman for the FCC, responded in a statement Monday: “At today’s news conference, they didn’t identify a single comment relied upon in the draft order as being questionable. This is an attempt by people who want to keep the Obama Administration’s heavy-handed Internet regulations to delay the vote because they realize that their effort to defeat the plan to restore Internet freedom has stalled.”
Some consumers have complained to the FCC that their own names or addresses have been used without their permission to submit false comments they did not support. Opponents of the FCC’s plan have also pointed to the strange appearance of comments submitted by people who are deceased.
Last week, Schneiderman's office created a website for people to check whether their identity had been used to submit FCC comments. His office has received more than 3,000 responses so far, he said. Schneiderman highlighted three cases of stolen identity: a deceased woman, a 13-year-old girl and a member of Schneiderman's own staff, whose name and childhood address were used without her permission.
“It is clear that our process for serving the public interest is broken,” Rosenworcel said at the news conference as she urged her colleagues to delay the vote until an investigation is completed. “The integrity of our public record is at stake, and the future of the Internet depends on it”
Also Monday, a group of 28 Senators, including Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), also called on the FCC to delay its vote on the repeal of net neutrality until the agency has conducted a thorough review of the public submissions. "[T]here is good reason to believe that the record may be replete with fake or fraudulent comments," they wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
Last month, FCC spokesman Brian Hart said that the agency lacks the resources to examine every comment. He said comments submitted in support of net neutrality were probably tied to automated accounts. He said that 7.5 million comments filed in favor of the regulations that appeared to come from 45,000 distinct email addresses were “all generated by a single fake email generator website.” In addition, according to Hart, 400,000 comments backing the rules appeared to originate from a Russian mailing address.
“The most suspicious activity has been by those supporting Internet regulation,” Hart said.