FBI Opens Criminal Investigation Into Net Neutrality Fraud

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the use of stolen identities in public comments on the government's repeal of net neutrality rules, BuzzFeed News reported Saturday.

The investigation focuses on "whether crimes were committed when potentially millions of people's identities were posted to the FCC's website without their permission, falsely attributing to them opinions about net neutrality rules," the report said.

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

The FBI subpoenas came a few days after similar subpoenas sent by NY AG Barbara Underwood in mid-October. Underwood "subpoenaed more than a dozen telecommunications trade groups, lobbying contractors, and Washington advocacy organizations," The New York Times reported in October.

The firms subpoenaed by New York also reportedly included contractors and subcontractors who participated in lobbying efforts to sway the net neutrality decision.

The New York subpoenas were issued "to 14 organizations—11 of which are either politically conservative or related to the telecommunications industry and opposed net neutrality, and three of which supported it," BuzzFeed wrote Saturday.

Both organizations that confirmed receiving FBI subpoenas "had previously been subpoenaed by New York and said the scope of those subpoenas were similar," BuzzFeed wrote. But the report did not say what information was sought in the subpoenas, and it's not clear whether the other organizations subpoenaed by New York also received subpoenas from the FBI.

The New York attorney general's office estimates that up to 9.5 million comments on the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality repeal were submitted using stolen identities. But the NY AG office said in November 2017 that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's office had refused to provide information needed for the investigation.

At the time, the FCC told New York state officials, "you cite no authority for your jurisdiction as a state official to investigate a federal agency's rulemaking process or to compel that agency to produce documents." Presumably, the FBI would have an easier time getting documents from the FCC.

We contacted the FBI and Department of Justice today and will update this story if we get a response.

Pai's "Restoring Internet Freedom" proceeding that led to the death of federal net neutrality rules attracted nearly 24 million public comments. The large number of fraudulent comments helped obscure the fact that about 98.5 percent of unique comments written by individuals were opposed to Pai's repeal.

Separately, The New York Times and BuzzFeed have been trying to investigate whether Russia interfered in the net neutrality comments, but the FCC has refused the news organizations' public records requests for server logs. The Times is suing the FCC for the documents.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, last week urged the commission's Republican majority to turn over the requested documents. "As many as 9.5 million people had their identities stolen and used to file fake comments, which is a crime under both federal and state laws," Rosenworcel said. "Something here is rotten—and it's time for the FCC to come clean."