New York expands probe into fake FCC comments on net neutrality

The state's attorney general has subpoenaed several industry and advocacy groups.

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
2 min read

These protesters rallied last year in opposition of the FCC rollback of net neutrality rules.

Andrew Caballero-reynolds / AFP/Getty Images

New York has expanded its investigation into fake public comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission last year on the agency's proposal to roll back net neutrality rules. 

The probe underway by the New York Attorney General's Office is now scrutinizing telecom trade groups and DC-based advocacy organizations that were both for and against the FCC's plan. 

Barbara Underwood, who became the attorney general in New York earlier this year when Eric Schneiderman stepped down, subpoenaed at least a dozen groups on Tuesday. She wants to know if these groups had anything to do with the 22 million fraudulent letters that flooded the FCC's electronic comment system in 2017 when the FCC was considering repealing the net neutrality rules.

The FCC, led by Republican Ajit Pai, voted last December to repeal the 2015 net neutrality regulations, which prohibited broadband providers from blocking or slowing down traffic and banned them from offering so-called fast lanes to companies willing to pay extra to reach consumers more quickly than competitors.

New York subpoenaed a range of groups about the fake comments, from the industry-funded Broadband for America, which opposes net neutrality, to pro-net neutrality groups like Free Press and Fight for the Future.

A large number of comments were filed using temporary or duplicate email addresses. And millions of letters repeated the same script verbatim.  A study released earlier this month from Stanford University found that 800,000 of the messages were unique, and of those, about 99.7 percent were in support of keeping the FCC's net neutrality rules.

Schneiderman first opened the investigation into the fake comments last November, a month before the net neutrality repeal vote.  The AG's office has already determined that millions of the comments submitted en masse fraudulently used real people's names, according to The New York Times. Some comments used the names of dead people. Investigators "estimate that almost half of all of the comments -- more than nine million -- used stolen identities," according to the Times.

Representatives from Free Press and Fight for the Future each said they are happy to cooperate with the New York Attorney General's request.

"We welcome this investigation," Sarah Roth-Gaudette, executive director for Fight for the Future said in a statement.   She added that her group was "one of the first groups to help uncover the flood of fraudulent comments that were submitted to the FCC, and to call for a thorough investigation."

The group also reached out to the FCC and asked that the agency remove the fraudulent comments from the docket, regardless of whether they were pro- or anti- net neutrality. But the agency didn't immediately respond.

A representative from Broadband for America didn't immediately respond to comment.

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