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New York steps up probe into net neutrality comments

State attorney general issues subpoenas to groups both for and against the rule

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New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood is expanding her investigation into reports that many of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) net neutrality comments – both for and against – were fake.

The investigation was begun by former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who charged last December that as many as 2 million comments sent to the FCC on the topic were not from individual consumers, but produced in mass by interest groups.

At the time, Schneiderman said his investigators had found New York, Florida, Texas, and California had each produced more than 100,000 comments purporting to be from real Americans. Since then, the number of allegedly faked comments has skyrocketed.

This week, Underwood's office sent out subpoenas to nearly a dozen industry and advocacy groups seeking any information they might have about the estimated 22 million letters that hit the FCC's inbox, arguing either for against net neutrality.

The FCC voted in mid-December to roll back the net neutrality policy, put in place by the Obama administration in 2015.

Red flags

The New York investigation determined that many of the net neutrality comments used temporary or duplicate email addresses, an easy red flag to spot. It was also highly suspicious, investigators say, that the text of many of the messages was identical.

Earlier this month, researchers at Stanford University analyzed all of the comments submitted to the FCC regarding net neutrality and identified 800,000 that were genuine. Of those, the researchers said more than 99 percent advocated keeping the policy in place.

Congressional Democrats have also pushed for investigations into the large number of comments submitted to the FCC and whether any of them actually mattered. Earlier this year 24 Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asking questions about how the agency dealt with the comments.

Partisan issue

Perhaps no issue divides Republicans and Democrats as much as net neutrality. Democrats support the principle the principle that the internet is a "common carrier" and cannot discriminate against content by favoring one type over another through price or speed.

Though net neutrality was only adopted as a regulation in 2015, they say the standard had been followed from the beginning, since early internet traffic traveled over telephone lines.

Republicans generally counter that internet traffic today travels over broadband networks created by telecommunications companies that are not public utilities.

The issue comes to a head in less than three months when California's net neutrality law is scheduled to take effect. The Trump administration is challenging it in court, arguing that it would cause “irreparable harm” to the U.S. if it were allowed to stand.

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