FCC rebuffs calls from senators, NY AG to delay net neutrality vote over fake comments

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed a plan that would eliminate Obama-era regulations.

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New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and twenty-eight U.S. senators said Monday they were seeking a delay in a Federal Communications Commission vote to repeal Obama-era Internet regulations, citing a profusion of fake public comments surrounding the hot-button issue.

“Federal law guarantees every American a voice in this process,” Schneiderman said during a New York City press conference Monday. “An investigation by my office has revealed that this process has been deeply corrupted.”

But the FCC said it will stick to its Dec. 14 plan to repeal the net neutrality rules that prevent Internet Service Providers from throttling or blocking content online, and prohibit ISPs from prioritizing some content over others, possibly for payment.

“At today’s news conference, they didn’t identify a single comment relied upon in the draft order as being questionable. This is an attempt by people who want to keep the Obama Administration’s heavy-handed Internet regulations to delay the vote because they realize that their effort to defeat the plan to restore Internet freedom has stalled,” FCC spokeswoman Tina Pelkey said via email.

The fight over fake comments is a new front in a nearly year-long long tussle over whether a rollback of landmark Internet regulations will hurt or help consumers.

The FCC, led by Republican Ajit Pai, say the rules were heavy-handed and stymied investment in broadband, a view supported by big telecom and Internet providers, such as Comcast and AT&T. The nation’s largest web companies, such as Google and Facebook, and digital rights advocates, say repealing the regulations will make it easier for Internet providers to favor content, including from their own channels.

Spurred by HBO’s John Oliver, who rallied his viewers to support existing regulations,  a tsunami of comments flooded the FCC website during the open comment period, exceeding 23 million. But groups on both sides started to notice many were fakes.

Schneiderman pointed to a study paid for by an industry group that represents Internet service providers called Broadband for America, which he says has acknowledged that as many as eight million comments submitted to the FCC may have been fake. The August study by researcher Emprata found that among the sliver of comments that were unique, non-form letters, more (1.77 million) were against the repeal than for the repeal (24,000).

More: Net Neutrality comments were a record. Will it matter?

He added that at least one million more comments came from real people whose identities were stolen. Fake comments were submitted both in support of and opposition to the FCC’s proposed ruling, findings that echoed other studies.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat appointed by President Obama who supports keeping the current regulations, said that nearly a half-million comments before the FCC were filed from Russian email addresses, and that 50,000 consumer complaints are missing from the record.

More: Net neutrality comments mostly came from bots and fake email addresses, Pew finds

More: What’s at stake with the FCC’s net neutrality vote

More: After net neutrality: How to tell if your ISP is slowing your Internet

A separate study from the Pew Research Center indicated that among the  record public comments about net neutrality filed with the FCC over a four-month period, only 6% were unique comments.

The  Senators who also voiced their hopes for a delay—all Democrats except for Independents Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — made their case in a letter sent to Chairman Pai.

“A free and open Internet is vital to ensuring a level playing field online, and we believe that your proposed action may be based on an incomplete understanding of the public record in this proceeding,” the Senators wrote. “In fact, there is good reason to believe that the record may be replete with fake or fraudulent comments, suggesting that your proposal is fundamentally flawed.”

Net neutrality has emerged as a complicated, partisan and contentious issue.

Pai himself has been openly critical of what he believes are burdensome regulations and an overreach of the FCC’s power. Speaking at a conference in February, he said that two years after the rules were put it in place, “it is evident that the FCC made a mistake (which) injected tremendous uncertainty into the broadband market, and uncertainty is the enemy of growth.”

During his press conference on Monday, Schneiderman indicated that after a period of stonewalling he received an email from the FCC’s inspector general’s office offering a willingness to help in his investigation into the fake comments. “This is a big step but given the FCC’s conduct over the past eight months we remain skeptical,” Schneiderman said.

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow UT Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

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