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FCC backtracks on helping with neutrality fraud investigation

Eager to cut ISP regulation, the agency shows concern for privacy of comment forgers

By Thomas Claburn in San Francisco

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After supposedly reversing course to assist New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's investigation into fake comments submitted during the net neutrality comment process, the Federal Communications Commission has doubled back on itself.

In a letter, obtained by Politico, sent to Schneiderman on Thursday, FCC general counsel Thomas Johnson said the comms agency must decline to help with the inquiry. He suggested revealing the IP addresses of commenters raised privacy concerns and posed a security risk to the FCC's comment system.

He also pushed back against Schneiderman's contention that the FCC's net neutrality comment process had been compromised because the agency doesn't make its determinations based on comment quantity.

Last month, Schneiderman published an open letter slamming the FCC for its refusal to assist the investigation into the suspected fraud. He said that his office has asked for records from the FCC nine times since June, to no avail.

"In an era where foreign governments have indisputably tried to use the internet and social media to influence our elections, federal and state governments should be working together to ensure that malevolent actors cannot subvert our administrative agencies' decision-making processes," he wrote.

The FCC appeared to reconsider its recalcitrance earlier this week, when Schneiderman's office announced that the FCC Inspector General’s office had "signaled its intent" to help after all.

Alas, it was not to be, as Johnson's letter explains.

In a statement emailed to The Register, Amy Spitalnick, press secretary for the New York State Office of the Attorney General, said the FCC had made clear it intends to continue obstructing the investigation.

"It’s easy for the FCC to claim that there’s no problem with the process, when they’re hiding the very information that would allow us to determine if there was a problem," said Spitalnick.

Impersonation, she said, is a violation of New York law and thousands of people have complained that their identities were stolen and used without consent to submit comments to the FCC.

"The only privacy jeopardized by the FCC’s continued obstruction of this investigation is that of the perpetrators who impersonated real Americans," she said. "Everyone – especially the FCC – should want to get to the bottom of this before deciding vital public policy based on a corrupted process that seemingly involved illegal activity."

The FCC did not respond to a request for comment.

The comms agency is expected to vote on chairman Ajit Pai's controversial plan to undo net neutrality protections next week, on December 14. Schneiderman and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, along with 41 advocacy organizations, have called for the vote to be postponed to allow the investigation to proceed.

But it doesn't appear Pai or the two other Republican Commissioners intend to listen. ®

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