House Democrats are asking the Federal Communications Commission to explain how it evaluated public comments regarding net neutrality, including ones believed to have been submitted by Russian operatives.
"When taking agency action, the FCC bears the burden of demonstrating that its analysis is supported by the record, and that it has fully engaged with the American public," Reps Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-New Jersey), Mike Doyle (D-Pennsylvania) and 20 other lawmakers on the Energy and Commerce Committee say in a new letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. "Unfortunately, the FCC's Order gave scant detail about how it approached its unprecedented docket."
The lawmakers note that a record-breaking 24 million comments about net neutrality were submitted to the FCC last year, but that many were submitted under fake names, or by Russian bots. Last year, the agency brushed aside requests to delay voting on net neutrality until investigators weeded out fake comments. In December, the agency voted 3-2 to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules that prohibited broadband providers from blocking or throttling traffic and from charging higher fees for prioritized delivery.
Congressional Democrats are now seeking answers to detailed questions about the comments, including how the agency decided which comments merited consideration.
"The FCC's Order notes that the Commission did not rely on 'comments devoid of substance,'" the letter states. "What analysis did the FCC conduct to determine which comments were 'devoid of substance?'"
Pallone and the others note that they were among the people who filed comments with the FCC. "A number of arguments raised in those comments were either dismissed out of hand or overlooked entirely," the letter states. "How did the Commission decide which arguments filed by members of Congress should not be considered?"
The lawmakers also pose some specific questions regarding fake names, including why the FCC doesn't try to verify the identity of commenters, and how it knows whether comments from company representatives are genuine.
"When the FCC cited a comment from an internet service provider, what did the Commission do to determine that the company in fact filed those comments?" the letter asks.
Additionally, the lawmakers want to know why the FCC declined to cooperate with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's criminal investigation of fake comments.
FCC general counsel Thomas Johnson said that Schneiderman had not presented evidence showing that the fake comments affected the agency. "The Commission does not make policy decisions merely by tallying the comments on either side of a proposal to determine what position has greater support, nor does it attribute greater weight to comments based on the submitter's identity," Johnson wrote last December.
The lawmakers are now seeking "internal communications" about its decision not to cooperate, as well as "any legal analysis generated to support this decision."