The New York attorney general subpoenaed more than a dozen telecommunications trade groups, lobbying contractors and Washington advocacy organizations on Tuesday, seeking to determine whether the groups submitted millions of fraudulent public comments to sway a critical federal decision on internet regulation, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation.
Some of the groups played a highly public role in last year’s battle, when the Federal Communications Commission voted to revoke rules that classified internet service providers as public utilities. The regulations, made under President Barack Obama, were meant to guarantee full and equal access to the internet, a principle known as net neutrality. The telecommunications industry bitterly opposed them and enthusiastically backed a repeal under President Trump.
The attorney general, Barbara D. Underwood, is investigating the source of more than 22 million public comments submitted to the F.C.C. during the battle over the regulations. Millions of comments were provided using temporary or duplicate email addresses, while others recycled identical phrases. Seven popular comments, repeated verbatim, accounted for millions more.
The noise from the fake or orchestrated comments appears to have broadly favored the telecommunications industry: One recent study, by a researcher at Stanford, found that virtually all of the unique comments submitted to the F.C.C. — the ones most likely to be bona fide — opposed repeal.
In September, The New York Times sued the F.C.C. to obtain digital records that would help trace the source of the public comments. The case is continuing.
Most strikingly, many comments on net neutrality were falsely submitted under the names of real people, in what amounted to mass acts of virtual identity theft. Some comments used the name of dead people. Ms. Underwood’s investigators have estimated that almost half of all of the comments — more than nine million — used stolen identities.
The investigation has traced comments submitted through bulk uploads and through an F.C.C. service that allows advocates to solicit public comments on their own websites and then transmit them to the agency. Investigators have identified four buckets of apparently fraudulent comments, each of which appears to have been associated with a particular network of advocacy organizations, trade groups and consultants, including at least some on both sides of the debate.
“The F.C.C.’s public comment process was corrupted by millions of fake comments,” Ms. Underwood said in a statement. “The law protects New Yorkers from deception and the misuse of their identities. My office will get to the bottom of what happened and hold accountable those responsible for using stolen identities to distort public opinion on net neutrality.”
The companies and groups subpoenaed on Tuesday, according to the person with knowledge of the investigation, include Broadband for America, Century Strategies and MediaBridge. Broadband for America is a coalition supported by cable and telecommunications companies; Century Strategies is a political consultancy founded by Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition; and MediaBridge is a conservative messaging firm whose website boasts of helping to place hundreds of thousands of comments on net neutrality during Mr. Obama’s presidency on behalf of one client.
In a statement, Century Strategies said it did not reveal the identity of clients as a matter of policy but defended its advocacy work. It said Ms. Underwood should focus her investigation on fraudulent comments submitted by groups supporting net neutrality.
“We have worked to encourage citizens to contact government officials to oppose government regulation of the internet,” the statement said. “We have directed our partners and vendors to follow above-industry standards and protections, including requiring individuals to provide name, address, email and phone number to verify who they are. We perform extensive data validation to verify all names and addresses using public databases.”
Ms. Underwood, according to the person familiar with the investigation, also demanded records and communications from a collection of nonprofits, consultants and vendors that her office has linked to the Center for Individual Freedom. The center, an advocacy group created in the 1990s by a former tobacco lobbyist, set up efforts last year that yielded thousands of identical comments to the F.C.C. Records are also being sought from a Republican consulting firm called Vertical Strategies.
The attorney general is also seeking records from several pro-neutrality groups, including Free Press and Fight for the Future, a group that advocates for digital rights. Those groups are chiefly funded by foundations and individuals.
Tim Karr, senior director of strategy and communications at Free Press, said his group would cooperate with Ms. Underwood. “We are responding to their requests and welcome this inquiry into the F.C.C.’s net neutrality comment process,” he said.
The net neutrality battle thrust a spotlight onto the grimy but increasingly high-tech world of regulatory influence campaigns, in which industry and advocacy groups try to build a record of public support or opposition for proposed policies.
Federal agencies and commissions that issue regulations are generally required to circulate them for public comment, creating an incentive to inundate agencies with millions of scripted comments that purport to come from real people. Digital messaging firms can generate thousands or millions of authentic-seeming comments. Some use software to build unique-seeming comments out of related phrases and words.
Strategists also use digital advertising to build lists of people who agree to support or oppose a regulation, then use digital tools to create and submit comments for them, a practice that can be difficult to distinguish from bulk uploads of comments using borrowed names.
The investigation is being spearheaded by a unit of Ms. Underwood’s office that has focused on the emerging world of online fraud, impersonation and abuse, including the theft of social media profiles to create and sell huge networks of fake accounts to commercial clients.