FCC chair Ajit Pai.
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin (AP)

Federal investigators are looking into whether the mass submission of millions of fraudulent letters on net neutrality to the Federal Communications Commission’s digital comment system was a crime as part of a Department of Justice investigation, BuzzFeed News reported on Saturday.

According to BuzzFeed’s report, two organizations who had previously received subpoenas stemming from a separate New York attorney general’s office investigation confirmed that they had received new subpoenas from the FBI:

Two organizations told BuzzFeed News, each on condition that they not be named, that the FBI delivered subpoenas to them related to the comments.

The reports are the first that federal investigators are taking in interest in the case, which was already subject to an investigation previously announced by the New York Attorney General’s office.

Both organizations had previously been subpoenaed by New York and said the scope of those subpoenas were similar.

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At issue are millions of public comments that were submitted to the FCC—as mandated by law—regarding what was at the time the agency’s proposal to roll back Barack Obama-era net neutrality rules. Over 22 million comments were submitted; while estimates of how many were either fakes (widely reported to have involved mass identity fraud using real names), duplicates, or bulk-submitted form letters vary, there is general agreement that the vast majority were not uniquely written letters. One study by a Stanford University researcher, Ryan Singel, found that there were only 800,000 unique comments, of which 99.7 percent were opposed to rolling back the rules.

For months, the FCC also insisted that the commenting system had been subjected to a cyber attack, with chairman and Donald Trump appointee Ajit Pai only later admitting that one never occurred—leading to speculation Pai had deliberately spread a fake story to downplay the volume of comments in support of net neutrality.

Despite polls showing massive public opposition to the regulatory rollback and outcry from numerous tech companies, telecoms that potentially stand to make a lot of money from less regulation were very much in favor of it. FCC commissioners voted last year to eliminate the rules in a 3-2 vote that fell squarely along party lines (with three Republicans in support and two Democrats in opposition), though attorneys general in 22 states and Washington, DC, as well as consumer groups and web company Mozilla, are suing to reverse the decision.

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The fiasco surrounding the comment system has similarly not gone away.

In October, the New York Times reported that New York state officials had subpoenaed “more than a dozen telecommunications trade groups, lobbying contractors and Washington advocacy organizations” as part of the attorney general’s investigation. That number included groups both in support of and opposed to the rollback, though most of the subpoenas were directed at groups in favor of Pai’s agenda. According to the BuzzFeed report, the offices of the Massachusetts and Washington, DC attorneys general have also issued subpoenas and are supporting the New York inquiry:

Their participation has not been previously reported.

The federal subpoenas arrived a few days after the state ones, the two organizations told BuzzFeed News.

The size of the federal investigation is unclear: Other organizations that had received subpoenas from the state attorneys general offices didn’t respond to requests for comment. The DC attorney general and the FBI did not reply to requests for comment.

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Earlier this week, the FCC refused to release server logs related to the incident to BuzzFeed News and the New York Times, both of which had submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the records. A separate legal battle between the FCC and journalist Jason Prechtel ended several months ago with a judge ruling the agency must meet with him to release emails used to submit the bulk comments. However, Prechtel did not get the court to order the release of server logs or unredacted versions of emails between FCC officials and “advocacy services” firm CQ Roll Call that appear to show the FCC assisting in the upload of bulk comments on behalf of unidentified CQ Roll Call clients. (As Prechtel noted on Medium, the firm asked the FCC for assistance “before [the FCC order repealing net neutrality] was even formally announced.”)

“What is the Federal Communications Commission hiding?” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in a March 2018 op-ed. “While millions of Americans sought to inform the FCC process by filing comments and sharing their deeply-held opinions about internet openness, millions of other filings in the net neutrality docket appear to be the product of fraud. As many as nine and a half million people had their identities stolen and used to file fake comments, which is a crime under both federal and state laws.”

[BuzzFeed News]

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