New York: Fear of foreign interference in US domestic issues surfaced once again last week when the New York State Attorney-General suggested massive identity theft had corrupted the decision making process on so-called "net neutrality".
Eric Schneiderman, the top law enforcement official in New York state, revealed a six-month investigation by his office had discovered hundreds of thousands of people across New York, California, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas had their identities appropriated and misused to make public submissions to a Federal Communications Commission inquiry.
The FCC is a government agency charged with regulating communications and media in the US. It had called for public comments on a controversial plan by the agency's chairman Ajit Pai to reverse net neutrality rules, which were established under the Obama administration in 2015.
Net neutrality is the concept that all content on the internet is equal. The idea is that the internet is a public utility and that anyone, from consumers to amateur bloggers and entrepreneurs, has the same access to the web, at the same speed, as tech giants Google and Facebook.
The Obama regulations established net neutrality by banning internet service providers and telcos from charging extra money to access certain services, for example Netflix, and slowing down the internet for users who can't or won't pay premiums for faster speeds.
Net neutrality means there is one internet, not a tiered system dictated by ISPs, and their customers' ability to pay.
The commission received more than 22 million comments from the public during the consultation period.. Most were in support of the 2015 regulations, but Schneiderman claimed a disproportionate number of fake submissions undermined the integrity of the process.
Schneiderman railed at Pai for failing to cooperate with his investigation.
Was the debate on net neutrality under attack from Russia? Or was it from US-based lobby groups? Schneiderman did not know, but he wanted to find out. Pai, like much of US President Donald Trump's administration, shared little of the same curiosity.
The New York Attorney-General has good reason for concern. An independent analysis of the FCC public submissions by data company Gravwell found that only 17.4 per cent of the more than 22,152,276 comments were "unique" - one-off, original comments. It was discovered that most comments were submitted in bulk and from contestable sources.
More than one million comments posted in July were attached to an email address at pornhub.com, a popular porn website. The analysis also saw clear evidence of comments being posted by bots - software that can run high-volume automated tasks.
According to Corey Thuen, the co-founder of Gravwell, his company's analysis also found bot-controlled submissions took a significantly different point of view on net neutrality than individual comments made organically through the FCC's website.
"Either the very act of going to the FCC comment site and providing a comment is only attractive to those of a certain political leaning or the bulk submission information is full of lies," Theune wrote in a blog post on his company's website.
Pai, a former attorney for US telecoms giant, Verizon, was appointed as FCC chairman by Trump in January. Last week he announced his intention to roll back the net neutrality regulations, with four other FCC commissioners set to vote on December 14. The vote is likely to fall along Republican-dominated party lines, three to two.
The debate about his plan has grown so heated, on Monday protesters left signs against the rollback outside his house that mentioned his children by name.
Pai appeared on Fox News saying such protest tactics "crossed a line".
"It was a little nerve-racking," he told Fox News. "Especially for my wife who's not involved in this space."
Australia has no regulations guaranteeing net neutrality, but in the US it is a big deal. In one corner sit tech giants like Google and Amazon, small businesses and entrepreneurs, Democrats, and much of the public, in favour of the regulation.
In the other corner is Pai, Trump, many Republicans, and telecom and internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. Pai's pitch is that ending net neutrality - the repeal is officially called "Restoring Internet Freedom" - supports an open market.
It was this line that was echoed by the Schneiderman investigation, which discovered thousands of FCC submissions were cut-and-paste identical messages.
"The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation," the message said. Pai probably couldn't have said it better himself.
"Impersonation and other misuse of a person's identity violates New York law," Schneiderman warned Pai.
The FCC vote may be one click away from ending net neutrality, but it's likely the battle for the internet won't end in December.
Net neutrality supporters - and Facebook and Google dollars - will see the issue go to the courts, but the dispute won't just involve corporate and public interests.
Schneiderman has introduced the idea that foreign, or at least malevolent, interference might now be about more than influencing elections. Ironically, in a debate on net neutrality, that influence came via the internet.