FCC Faces Scrutiny For Refusing To Turn Over Evidence On Net Neutrality Comments

New York's attorney general says the federal agency is holding up an investigation.

The Federal Communications Commission received millions of suspicious comments in support of its plan to repeal net neutrality, and it ignored multiple requests for evidence that would explain their origin. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman isn’t happy about that.

On Tuesday, one day after Trump-appointed FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai announced he would forge forward with a plan to gut net neutrality, Schneiderman published an open letter calling out the agency for some serious misdeeds.

In particular, he noted the FCC “has refused multiple requests for crucial evidence” that is essential to his office’s ongoing investigation into the “fake comments.” Since many of those comments used the identities of “hundreds of thousands” of real Americans, Schneiderman says, whoever submitted them likely broke the law.

The New York attorney general says his office requested the FCC records at least nine times over five months from multiple top FCC officials, yet “received no substantive response.”

That lines up with the experiences of others who are looking into the origins of the comments.

On Sept. 8, a freelance journalist name Jason Prechtel filed suit against the FCC after it failed to respond in a timely manner to a Freedom of Information Act request he filed for similar information regarding the comments.

And at least three other groups also filed lawsuits earlier this year after their FOIAs requesting information on the FCC’s net neutrality comment-gathering process were ignored.

Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, speaks during an open meeting on Nov. 16.
Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, speaks during an open meeting on Nov. 16.
Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An analysis by data analytics company Gravwell of the 22 million net neutrality comments the FCC received found that only 17.4 percent of them were unique and not submitted in bulk. Per Gravwell, those authentic comments were “overwhelmingly in support of net neutrality regulations.” In contrast, a majority of the far more numerous suspicious comments were against net neutrality.

(Also troubling: The FCC told reporters Tuesday that it has been more or less ignoring all of the comments anyway, except those that made unique legal arguments or contributed previously unconsidered facts.)

Yet, despite how fraught the issues are, Schneiderman says his investigation isn’t actually about net neutrality ― it’s about the far more serious task of protecting the integrity of our democratic process.

“This investigation isn’t about the substantive issues concerning net neutrality,” he wrote Tuesday. “It’s about the right to control one’s own identity and prevent the corruption of a process designed to solicit the opinion of real people and institutions.

“Misuse of identity online by the hundreds of thousands should concern everyone ― for and against net neutrality, New Yorker or Texan, Democrat or Republican,” he continued. “We all have a powerful reason to hold accountable those who would steal Americans’ identities and assault the public’s right to be heard in government rulemaking.

“If law enforcement can’t investigate and (where appropriate) prosecute when it happens on this scale, the door is open for it to happen again and again.”

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