FCC Chair Ajit Pai Admits Millions of Russian and Fake Comments Distorted Net Neutrality Repeal
FCC Chair Ajit Pai admitted in a commission statement Dec. 3 that fraudulent comments in the millions, including “half-million submitted from Russian e-mail addresses,” were made in a public process prior to the commission’s allegedly foregone decision to reverse net-neutrality policies set in the Obama Administration.
Over 22 million comments were received, most of them using identical language, temporary or duplicate addresses, or believed to be generated by spambots. Pai’s admission came in a heated exchange with a dissenting commissioner in which Pai claimed these fake comments support net neutrality.
Previously, Pai and the FCC had resisted characterizing issues with the comments, and proceeded with a vote to allow Internet service providers to engage in certain forms of network discrimination that could favor content partners who pay and throttle sites and services that do not. The changes went into effect in June 2018.
However, in the FCC filing on Dec. 3, Pai noted:
…one finds the now-standard overheated rhetoric about “net neutrality” (omitting, as usual, the fact that the half-million comments submitted from Russian e-mail addresses and the nearly eight million comments filed by e-mail addresses from e-mail domains associated with FakeMailGenerator.com supported her position on the issue!).
Pai’s comment was in response to a dissenting opinion by Democratic FCC commission appointee Jessica Rosenworcel, who asserted “millions of other filings in the net neutrality docket appear to be the product of fraud.” She stated that the FCC “is hiding what it knows about the fraud in our record and it is preventing an honest account of its many problems from seeing the light of day.” The FCC didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment from Fortune.
The New York Attorney General’s Office has an open investigation since December 2017 into the potentially fraudulent use of the names of New York residents in comments. It reportedly expanded substantially in October 2018. Attorney General Barbara Underwood said in a statement sent Dec. 5 to Fortune:
The FCC’s public comment process was corrupted by millions of fake comments—and our investigation found that as many as 9.53 million of those comments stole the identities of real people. The law protects New Yorkers from deception and the misuse of their identities. And all Americans deserve a fair and transparent process for determining public policy that impacts their daily lives. My office will get to the bottom of what happened and hold accountable those responsible for using stolen identities to distort public opinion on net neutrality.
Pai’s stipulation came in a response made to a lawsuit by the New York Times for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) release of server logs related to comments placed via the FCC’s public comment filing system. A judge issued a mixed opinion in September that required both parties to confer and file additional information with him.
While the comments are publicly available as submitted, including identifying information, the FCC order denied FOIA release of logs under an exemption that the release would disclose both “particular information related to law enforcement and security matters” and private information.