FCC chairman acknowledges Russia interfered in net neutrality public comments

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai is acknowledging that Russia-linked email addresses weighed in during the public comment process ahead of the FCC's net neutrality repeal last year. 

Pai said in a statement this week that it is a "fact" that a half-million comments were submitted from Russian email addresses during the public comment period, adding that most of those comments were in favor of net neutrality.

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The FCC’s public comment process around net neutrality was mired in controversy in 2017, with lawmakers and companies on both sides of the issue arguing that a deluge of fake comments undermined the legitimacy of the process. 

Pai's comments came as part of a memorandum opinion released by the FCC amid a lawsuit from The New York Times. The Times and BuzzFeed News are seeking access to internal information about the millions of fake comments, while the commission argues that releasing that information will leave the U.S. vulnerable to possible cyberattacks. 

The Times is arguing that the data it is requesting would “shed light to the extent to which Russian nationals and agents of the Russian government have interfered with the agency notice-and-comment process about a topic of extensive public interest.” 

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel also attached an opinion to the memorandum, arguing that the FCC should release the information. Rosenworcel is a Democrat while Pai is a Republican. 

"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,” she wrote. "Nearly eight million comments were filed from e-mail domains associated with FakeMailGenerator.com. On top of this, roughly half a million comments were filed from Russian e-mail addresses.

"Something here is rotten — and it’s time for the FCC to come clean."  

The FCC ultimately decided to repeal net neutrality rules, which require internet service providers to give equal footing to all web traffic. 

Changes in FCC rules are often preceded by a "notice and comment" period, during which the FCC offers the public the opportunity to weigh in on proposed rule changes. Millions of the comments posted during this period came from fraudulent email addresses. Most of those fake comments were in favor of net neutrality, studies have shown.  

The FCC in 2017 said that the comment process was hacked during a high-frequency period of commenting after late-night host John Oliver directed his viewers to comment during his HBO show.