Two senators — one Republican and one Democratic — said their identities were stolen to write fake comments to the Federal Communications Commission ahead of the agency's vote last year to dismantle net neutrality rules.
Sens. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) claim they were among millions of Americans who were impersonated in public comments to fraudulently skew the agency's policymaking process. The lawmakers urged FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a letter sent last week to identify the people behind the impersonations and to take steps to prevent such activity in the future.
Net neutrality has been one of the most fiercely debated tech issues. The rules that were repealed required Internet providers to treat all websites equally, regardless of their size or content. Public input plays an important role at the FCC, which typically solicits feedback before it votes to make significant policy changes. In the run-up to the FCC's vote, agency critics raised alarms that the public commenting system was tainted with thousands of computer generated submissions and fake comments written by people or entities pretending to be U.S. citizens.
The day before the FCC was scheduled to vote on the net neutrality repeal, then New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released new details of his office's investigation into the fake submissions, finding that as many as 2 million comments misused the identities of real Americans, a potential violation of state law. According to Schneiderman, more than 5,000 people submitted reports of identity misuse to his office, which included allegations that some comments were filed by deceased family members.
“My LATE husband’s name was fraudulently used after a valiant battle with cancer," one person wrote to the attorney general. Another report said, “This is a 13-year-old child — she did not post this comment, nor did anyone else in her household.”
The FCC voted in December to repeal net neutrality rules.
Along with the claims of being impersonated, the senators urged the FCC to share the total number of fake comments that were submitted. They also asked the FCC seven questions about its efforts to investigate and shed light on the matter, including: how the agency is working with the Justice Department and state attorneys general to identify who submitted the fake comments and whether any state crimes were committed; what measures the agency is taking to prevent future fraudulent commenting, and if the FCC is aware of any foreign governments submitting phony comments.
"We need to prevent the deliberate misuse of Americans’ personal information and ensure that the FCC is working to protect against current and future vulnerabilities in its system," the senators wrote in the letter to Pai.
Brian Hart, an FCC spokesman, acknowledged receipt of the letter but declined to comment.
The Senate voted in favor of a resolution earlier this month to restore the FCC's net neutrality regulations, which could lead to a political victory for tech companies, activists and consumer advocacy groups. But it is unclear if the measure will pass in the House of Representatives. Analysts say it is unlikely President Trump would sign the resolution into law.