New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Tuesday that his office is investigating tens of thousands of comments posted to a notice of the FCC’s proposed change to net neutrality rules after learning that they were made by impersonators.
The investigation was launched six months ago, after researchers and reporters learned that the comment process, which is integral to the agency’s procedure for determining such rule changes, was being usurped by fraudsters who submitted an enormous number of fake comments, Schneiderman said Tuesday in an open letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
“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,” Schneiderman wrote. “That’s akin to identity theft, and it happened on a massive scale.”
He said that the identities of tens of thousands of New Yorkers were fraudulently used.
“Analysis showed that, in all, hundreds of thousands of Americans likely were victimized in the same way, including tens of thousands per state in California, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and possibly others,” Schneiderman wrote.
Over the last 6 mos, my office has investigated a massive scheme to corrupt the @FCC's comment process on #NetNeutrality by impersonating 100,000s of real Americans.— Eric Schneiderman (@AGSchneiderman) November 22, 2017
The FCC has been unwilling to provide information that is critical to the investigation: https://t.co/xxFjSg6Pxf
He said his office tried nine times over the course of five months to get records from the FCC necessary to investigate the apparent identity theft. He said his office and the FCC have shared information with one another before, but that despite offers to keep the records confidential, as done in the past, New York officials have “received no substantive response to our investigative requests.”
“We all have a powerful reason to hold accountable those who would steal Americans’ identities and assault the public’s right to be heard in government rule making,” Schneiderman wrote. “If law enforcement can’t investigate and (where appropriate) prosecute when it happens on this scale, the door is open for it to happen again and again.”
He urged Pai and the FCC to “reconsider its refusal to assist in my office’s law enforcement investigation.”
“In an era where foreign governments have indisputably tried to use the internet and social media to influence our elections, federal and state governments should be working together to ensure that malevolent actors cannot subvert our administrative agencies’ decision-making processes,” he wrote.
Pai previously pledged to try to repeal the net neutrality regulations enacted under the Obama administration, which treat internet service providers as if they were utility companies that provide essential services, like electricity. The rules mandate that they give equal access to all online content and apps.
Pai distributed his alternative net neutrality rule plan to other FCC commissioners Tuesday in preparation for a Dec. 14 vote. Although the FCC’s two Democrats said they will oppose the proposal, the repeal is likely to prevail as Republicans dominate 3-2. The vote for net neutrality in 2015 was also along party lines, but Democrats dominated then.
Schneiderman said that his office’s investigation is not about net neutrality, but is instead 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.”
“Misuse of identity online by the hundreds of thousands should concern everyone – for and against net neutrality, New Yorker or Texan, Democrat or Republican,” Schneiderman said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.