GAO to Investigate Net Neutrality Rule Making Comments

Sammi LeMaster helps to dismantle a large alarm clock display that reads “Net Neutrality Wake Up Call” from the stage after a protest at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(CN) – The Government Accountability Office is investigating the possibility of fraud and identity theft during the FCC’s net neutrality rule-making process.

The investigation was revealed in a letter written to Representative Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., on Jan. 9, but only made public Wednesday via a tweet posted by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

In it, the agency said it would review the “extent and pervasiveness of fraud and the misuse of American identities.” It expects to the investigation to take about five months.

Chuck Young, a spokesperson for the Government Accountability Office, told Courthouse News Wednesday the agency’s investigation is in its infancy right now and even what criteria will be used to verify fraud is currently unclear.

“Once the work gets underway, estimated to be in about 5 months, one of the first steps will be to determine the exact scope of what we will cover and the methodology to be used. Until then, we don’t have any outline,” he said.

The FCC voted 3-2 in December to kill the Open Internet Order, an Obama-era rule that barred internet service providers from accelerating connection speeds to preferred customers.

Public outcry around FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed reversal of the order – dubbed Restoring Internet Freedom – was so massive it generated roughly 23 million online comments — pro and against the plan — during the open comment period.

Pai moved ahead with the vote, but even before it was held New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, said his office had found at least 2 million comments submitted to the FCC were made by individuals posing as someone else.

In some cases, commenters were long dead, and at least 5,000 comments were flagged as examples of identity theft, Schneiderman said.

According to the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of the comments submitted online during the April 27 to Aug. 30 comment period used duplicate email addresses or temporary ones, while in some cases, individual names appeared thousands of times.

For example, the name “Pat M.” was listed on over 5,900 individual submissions, Pew reported.

Attorneys general for 21 states and the District of Columbia have since sued to block the repeal of the federal policy, which had banned companies from interfering with web traffic or speeds to favor certain sites or apps.

And they fired off a letter to the Government Accountability Office requesting a formal review of the FCC’s rulemaking and comment process.

On Wednesday, Schneiderman released a statement praising the GAO’s decision to take up that investigation and said his office will continue its own investigation “into this potential impersonation.”

“The FCC’s decision to move ahead with its vote last month – despite widespread evidence of corruption – made a mockery of our public comment process and rewarded those who perpetrated fraud in order to advance their own agenda,” he said.

In the meantime, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., last week secured enough Democratic votes to push through a bill proposing a hard stop to the FCC’s reversal. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., has a similar measure in the House with more than 80 co-sponsors.

In a related move on Thursday,  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order requiring internet service providers observe net neutrality rules – no fast or slow lanes – in their state.

If they don’t abide by those rules, Cuomo said, they risk losing eligibility for state contracts. The move is billed as a consumer protection measure and a way to leverage the state’s access to lucrative information technology contracts over already profitable internet service providers. A similar order was handed down by Montana Governor Steve Bullock.

“The FCC’s dangerous ruling goes against the core values of our democracy, and New York will do everything in our power to protect net neutrality and the free exchange of ideas,” Cuomo said Thursday.

New York state lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy of Albany, have also proposed legislation mandating net neutrality rules for providers, like AT&T or Verizon. If they wish to do business with government officials, either locally or on a state level, they would have to follow the Obama-era regulation.

Cuomo has thrown his support behind Fahy’s bill, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

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