FCC chairman acknowledges Russians interfered in net neutrality debate

About half a million comments sent to the agency about the net neutrality repeal were from Russian email addresses, Ajit Pai says in a memo.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai acknowledged that Russians meddled in the debate surrounding the repeal of net neutrality.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said earlier this week that roughly 500,000 comments submitted during the debate over the controversial repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules were linked to Russian email addresses.

The disclosure was made in a statement filed this week in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests submitted by The New York Times and BuzzFeed. In the statement, Pai refers to "the half-million comments submitted from Russian e-mail addresses."

Pai's acknowledgement that Russians played a role in last year's net neutrality debate shows how widespread Russia's campaign to influence US democracy extends. US intelligence and law enforcement have accused Russian groups of interfering in the 2016 presidential election by using stolen identities to pose as Americans on Facebook and Instagram, creating Facebook groups, buying divisive ads and posting inflammatory images.

It seems groups were employing some of the same techniques to influence the net neutrality debate, which resulted in a record number of comments being submitted to the FCC. But even as comments were pouring in, public policy watchdogs were sounding alarms.

Reviews of the public record found that 2 million of the 22 million comments submitted to the FCC used stolen identities, some for people who were dead, including actress Patty Duke, who died in 2016. Nearly 8 million comments used email domains associated with FakeMailGenerator.com. About half a million were sent from Russian email addresses. And of the emails that came from legitimate email addresses, the vast majority were form letters originating from the same pro- and anti-net neutrality groups.

Then there was the controversy over a supposed cyberattack on the comment system that temporarily shut down the platform on exactly the same day thousands of net neutrality supporters responded to comedian John Oliver's call to flood the agency with comments.That cyberattack was confirmed to be false, after more than a year of speculation, following the release of a report by the agency's internal watchdog, the Office of Inspector General.

The Times and BuzzFeed News filed FOIA requests in an effort to learn more about the fraudulent comments submitted to the FCC. But the FCC has refused the requests for records, citing privacy and security concerns. In September, the Times sued the agency. The court case is still pending, but the newspaper appealed once again to the FCC to reverse its decision to withhold the information. Earlier this week, the FCC again denied the Times' request.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the only Democrat on the FCC, disagreed with the majority's decision to withhold the records. And in a statement, she slammed the Republican-led agency.  

"What is the Federal Communications Commission hiding?" she asked in her statement. "Something here is rotten -- and it's time for the FCC to come clean."

Pai responded in his own statement, accusing Rosenworcel of not supporting previous efforts on his part to improve transparency at the FCC when the agency was led by Democrats.

"What has changed between then and now?" he said. "Literally nothing, other than the political affiliation of the FCC's leadership (and a lot more transparency now than the agency ever had then)."

The news agencies aren't the only ones looking for answers. The New York Attorney General's Office opened an investigation into the fake comments last November, a month before the net neutrality repeal vote.  

Sens. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, and Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania -- who both had their identities stolen and then used to post fake public comments -- have also called on the FCC to address the issue.

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