Three Senate Democrats are calling on the Federal Communications Commission's inspector general to investigate the way the agency handled fake net neutrality comments, including ones submitted by Russian operatives.
“Despite concerns that the rule-making process was subverted by fraudulent comments and manipulated by special interests, including possible Russian interference, the FCC has seemingly ignored the issue, failed to provide answers to Congress, and dismissed public concerns,” Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), said this week in a letter to FCC Inspector General David Hunt. “The Commission's apparent disinterest in investigating fraudulent comments risks undermining public trust in the FCC's rule-making process.”
The request stems from the FCC's decision to repeal the Obama-era net neutrality rules, which prohibited broadband providers from blocking or throttling traffic and from charging higher fees for fast-lane service. In April 2017, Chairman Ajit Pai, a vocal critic of the rules, officially proposed revoking them. The proposal drew a record-breaking 22 million comments, but many of those were submitted under phony names, or by Russian bots.
The precise number of fake comments isn't known, but New York Acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood recently said up to 9.53 million comments may have been submitted under stolen identities. In addition, around 450,000 came from Russian email addresses.
Underwood has subpoenaed more than 12 organizations, including groups funded by the broadband industry (which opposed the net neutrality rules), as well as advocacy groups that supported net neutrality. Former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched a probe of the fake comments late last year, but the FCC refused to cooperate. The New York Times Co. recently sued the FCC for more information about possible Russian meddling in the proceeding.
Most of the 22 million comments used canned language that had been posted online, or offered by organizations such as pro-neutrality advocacy groups Fight for the Future, Demand Progress and Free Press, and the anti-regulatory group Taxpayers Protection Alliance, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
Nearly all of the unique comments were in favor of keeping the net neutrality rules, according to a recent Stanford University report.
The lawmakers are asking Hunt to investigate a number of questions, including when the FCC first learned of the phony comments and what steps it took to respond.
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted her support for an investigation. “Millions of comments filed in the @FCC #NetNeutrality record were fraudulent -- featuring stolen identities and Russian e-mail addresses,” she posted. “What happened? Who is responsible? What is the @FCC hiding? It's time -- past time -- to investigate.”