Fake Americans Are Influencing the Debate Over Net Neutrality, Says New York's Attorney General

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says that bots are interfering in the debate over net neutrality. Mike Segar/Reuters

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are having their identities stolen and used to interfere in government decisions about whether internet service providers should be allowed to block apps, slow websites and charge fees for what people do online, says New York's attorney general.

"For six months my office has been investigating who perpetrated a massive scheme to corrupt the FCC's notice and comment process through the misuse of enormous numbers of real New Yorkers' and other Americans' identities," wrote Eric Schneiderman, New York state's top lawman, on Tuesday.

"My office analyzed the public comments submitted to the @FCC about #netneutrality—and found that 100,000s of Americans were likely impersonated to drown out the views of real people and businesses," Schneiderman tweeted in a separate message.

Schneiderman has approached the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with his findings but says they have "been unwilling to assist my office in our efforts to investigate this unlawful activity."

In April, the FCC announced that it was seeking comments from Americans about whether it should change the rules about net neutrality—Obama-era regulations that ensure Internet Service Providers (ISPs) give their customers equal access to the entire internet.

The FCC received more than 22 million comments. An independent analysis has found most of these were against net neutrality and were submitted by fake accounts.

On Tuesday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai unveiled a plan to roll back the 2015 net neutrality regulations. "Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet," Pai said in a statement.

Without the regulations, internet providers like Comcast and Verizon will be allowed to control whether users can access sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Netflix, and control how quickly those sites perform. Comcast says it will continue to treat all websites equally despite the rule change.

Read more: What is net neutrality and can free porn and Netflix survive GOP effort to roll back Obama-era rules

Websites like Amazon, Etsy, Google, Reddit, Wikipedia and others have fought for net neutrality for years, arguing that the internet's level playing field has allowed websites like theirs to innovate and thrive online, fueling the economy. Some of these websites are again mounting a campaign against Pai's proposed changes.

An analysis of the millions of comments conducted by the data company Gravwell in October found that just 17.4 percent of the comments to the FCC on the net neutrality rules came from real people.

"When looking at the raw total number of comments, the majority fall into the anti-neutrality camp," wrote the company's co-founder Corey Thuen in a blog post. Yet the real "people who submitted comments directly to the FCC website are overwhelmingly in support of net neutrality regulations," Thuen wrote.

Thuen's analysis found that a bulk of the fake anti–net neutrality comments were submitted by bots—automated computer programs that can inundate a website with large batches of data.

In the 2016 presidential election, American intelligence agencies and internet companies including Facebook and Twitter found bots controlled by Russian intelligence were deployed on a large scale to shape the debate online.

While some of the fake comments submitted to the FCC on net neutrality used made-up names and addresses, wrote Schneiderman, "many misused the real names and addresses of actual people as part of the effort to undermine the integrity of the comment process. That's akin to identity theft, and it happened on a massive scale."

Schneiderman said his office contacted the FCC a total of nine times in June, July, August, September, October and November, requesting help in investigating the identity theft, and received no response.

"Successfully investigating this sort of illegal conduct requires the participation of the agency whose system was attacked," he noted, indicating that what happened could corrupt the democratic process.

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