Democrats requested investigation after millions of people were impersonated.
Rally organizers carry away props following a protest outside the Federal Communication Commission building against the end of net neutrality rules on December 14, 2017 in Washington, DC.
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) will investigate the use of impersonation in public comments on the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality repeal.
Congressional Democrats requested the investigation last month, and the GAO has granted the request.
While the investigation request was spurred by widespread fraud in the FCC's net neutrality repeal docket, Democrats asked the GAO to also "examine whether this shady practice extends to other agency rulemaking processes." The GAO will do just that, having told Democrats in a letterthat it will "review the extent and pervasiveness of fraud and the misuse of American identities during federal rulemaking processes."
The investigation was requested by nine Democrats led by Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), and Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ).
GAO investigations do not happen quickly. "At the current time we anticipate that staff with the required skills will be available to initiate an engagement in about five months," the office said.
The GAO provides independent, nonpartisan audits and investigations for Congress.
The GAO previously agreed to investigate DDoS attacks that allegedly targeted the FCC comment system, also in response to a request by Democratic lawmakers. The Democrats charged that Chairman Ajit Pai's FCC did not provide enough evidence that the attacks actually happened, and they asked the GAO to find out what evidence the FCC used to make its determination. Democrats also asked the GAO to examine whether the FCC is prepared to prevent future attacks.
The DDoS investigation should happen sooner than the new one on comment fraud because the GAO accepted that request in October.
Millions were impersonated
The FCC's net neutrality repeal received more than 22 million comments, but millions were apparently submitted by bots and falsely attributed to real Americans (including some dead ones) who didn't actually submit comments. Various analyses confirmed the widespread spam and fraud; one analysis found that 98.5 percent of unique comments opposed the repeal plan.
The FCC's comment system makes no attempt to verify submitters' identities, and allows bulk uploads so that groups collecting signatures for letters and petitions can get them on the docket easily. It was like that even before Pai took over as chair, but the fraud became far more pervasive in the proceeding that led to the repeal of net neutrality rules. Pai's FCC did not remove any fraudulent comments from the record.
Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called for a delay in the net neutrality repeal vote because of the fraud, but the Republican majority pushed the vote through as scheduled last month.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been investigating the comment fraud and says the FCC has stonewalled the investigation by refusing to provide evidence. Schneiderman is also leading a lawsuit to reverse the FCC's net neutrality repeal, and the comment fraud could play a role in the case.
"We understand that the FCC's rulemaking process requires it to address all comments it receives, regardless of who submits them," Congressional Democrats said in their letterrequesting a GAO investigation. "However, we do not believe any outside parties should be permitted to generate any comments to any federal governmental entity using information it knows to be false, such as the identities of those submitting the comments."