FCC chair still refuses to help investigate net neutrality comment fraud

Getty Images | Peter Dazeley

The Federal Communications Commission has again refused to help New York’s attorney general investigate impersonation and other fraud in public comments on the FCC’s net neutrality repeal.

For the past six months, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been “investigating who perpetrated a massive scheme to corrupt the FCC’s notice and comment process” by filing fraudulent comments under real people’s names. But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s office has “refused multiple requests for crucial evidence in its sole possession,” Schneiderman wrote in an open letter to Pai last month.

FCC General Counsel Thomas Johnson responded to Schneiderman on Pai’s behalf Thursday and once again refused to provide the requested evidence.

“[Y]ou cite no authority for your jurisdiction as a state official to investigate a federal agency’s rulemaking process or to compel that agency to produce documents,” Johnson wrote.

The FCC also said that Schneiderman has not “identified any specific law or legal authority” to support its assertion that submitting comments under fake names violates state law.

Schneiderman had said that his office launched an investigation because “impersonation and other misuse of a person’s identity violates New York law.” While Schneiderman’s letter didn’t cite a specific law, New York’s criminal impersonation law says that impersonation on Internet websites “with intent to obtain a benefit or injure or defraud another” is illegal.

Providing evidence too “burdensome,” FCC says

The FCC also argued that complying with New York’s request for evidence would be too difficult and that doing so might violate people’s privacy. Johnson wrote:

[Y]our staff has previously asked us to provide logs of Internet Protocol (“IP”) addresses for certain comments. Even assuming that these logs would indicate that some comments originated from cloud-based automatic “bots,” many others would reflect the IP addresses of authentic human users. It would be unduly burdensome, if not impossible, for the Commission to separate legitimate from illegitimate entries in the logs. Revealing the IP addresses of public commenters would also raise significant personal privacy concerns.”

These logs would also provide information on how the FCC protects the security of its commenting system, “including how the Commission protects its commercial cloud service from disruptive attacks,” Johnson wrote. This information “would provide a roadmap for hackers to create the very disruptions to federal rulemakings that you seek to prevent,” he wrote.

The FCC’s letter did not explain how the IP addresses of commenters would provide this “roadmap,” however.

The FCC previously used this same argument to deny requests for information from members of Congress who were looking into a DDoS attack that the FCC says disrupted its commenting system on May 8.

The FCC “has never burdened commenters with providing identity verification or expended the massive amount of resources necessary to verify commenters’ identities,” Johnson also wrote in the letter to Schneiderman. But the FCC still “painstakingly engaged with the voluminous public record in this proceeding” before issuing the net neutrality repeal, he wrote.

While the FCC chairman’s office has refused to help New York, Schneiderman’s office said last week that the FCC’s inspector general had “reversed course, indicating that it will assist with the Attorney General’s investigation.”

Delay the vote, Democrat says

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who opposes the net neutrality repeal, blasted the commission’s Republican majority for its refusal to aid the investigation. She also called for the net neutrality repeal vote to be halted.

Rosenworcel issued this statement on Friday:

In a letter dated yesterday that was handed to press but is unavailable on the FCC’s website, the agency refuses to assist New York Attorney General Schneiderman’s investigation into the identity theft of a million consumers in the FCC’s net neutrality record. This letter shows the FCC’s sheer contempt for public input and unreasonable failure to support integrity in its process. To put it simply, there is evidence in the FCC’s files that fraud has occurred and the FCC is telling law enforcement and victims of identity theft that it is not going to help. Moreover, the FCC refuses to look into how nearly half a million comments came from Russian sources. Failure to investigate this corrupted record undermines our process for seeking public input in the digital age.

This is unacceptable. Until we get to the bottom of this mess with a proper investigation, no vote should take place.

The repeal vote is scheduled for Thursday this week. Pai’s office has refused to delay the vote, even despite a pending court case that could eliminate the Federal Trade Commission’s authority to regulate many Internet service providers. One of Pai’s key justifications for the repeal is that the FTC will protect consumers after the FCC’s net neutrality rules are gone.

Calls for delays are evidence that net neutrality supporters “are becoming more desperate by the day as their effort to defeat Chairman Pai’s plan to restore Internet freedom has stalled,” Pai’s office said early last week.

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