Broadband companies funded a campaign that flooded the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with fake comments ahead of its controversial repeal of net neutrality rules in 2017, the New York Attorney General’s office said.
New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report by her office on Thursday that found “widespread fraud, as well as abusive practices used to sway government policy—using masses of comments and messages to create the false impression of popular support,” for the FCC’s net neutrality repeal.
In 2017, ahead of the FCC’s vote, it was found that millions of fraudulent comments were filed supporting the repeal. In fact, one study found that 99 percent of comments from actual people were against the FCC repealing the rules.
James notes that “an industry trade group and three companies that are among the biggest players in the United States internet, phone, and cable market” banded together to try and create the illusion of support for the FCC’s repeal and give it “cover.”
The “broadband industry players” spent $4.2 million that wound up generating more than 8.5 million comments to the FCC and letters to members of Congress.
In the report, James notes that the campaign was run through a non-profit called “Broadband for America” that used anti-regulation groups to serve as the “public faces” of the campaign. Broadband for America’s members include AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, and a number of telecom lobby firms.
The Attorney General’s office obtained planning documents that said they wanted the campaign to get “widespread grassroots support” that would give former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai “volume and intellectual cover” to repeal net neutrality rules.
Meanwhile, the broadband industry also sent messages to members of Congress that were “purportedly signed by their constituents.”
The New York Attorney General’s report notes that the broadband industry paid “lead generators” to manufacture fake support and make it look genuine, also known as “astroturfing.”
The broadband industry turned to lead generators to use “co-registration” where information is collected on consumers by offering rewards—one of which, according to the Attorney General’s office was for a “male enhancement trial bottle”—and have solicitations to join the anti-net neutrality campaign run next to them. However, the report says, “nearly every lead generator that was engaged to enroll consumers … fabricated consumers’ responses” and didn’t run the solicitation. Instead, they used information they had collected earlier and passed it on as if it was from consumers who agreed to join the broadband industry’s campaign, the report says.
Those lead generators, Fluent, Inc.; React2Media Inc.; and Opt-Intelligence Inc. have agreed to pay $3.7 million, $550,000, and $150,000, the Attorney General’s report says.
The report says the Attorney General’s office has not found evidence that they broadband companies and lobbying firm “had direct knowledge that the lead generators they had funded engaged in fraud” and thus could not find that they had broken any laws in New York.
However, it was quick to note that: “the OAG’s investigation has demonstrated that the broadband companies’ campaign organizers ignored several significant red flags as to the authenticity of the comments that were generated and the integrity of the process.”
The report also notes that 7.7 million comments that were pro-net neutrality were fake, and were automated by a 19-year-old college student who used software to come up with fabricated names and addresses. The report says that none of those comments used the names of real people.
The investigation was cheered by tech advocacy groups.
“We applaud Attorney General Letitia James for investigating and exposing this scam, holding the scammers accountable and tracking these fraudulent activities back to those who financed them: the nation’s biggest broadband providers and their high-priced lobbyists, including a former chairman of the FCC,” Free Press Action Co-CEO Craig Aaron said in a statement.
Aaron added that net neutrality could be a big part of the agenda for the FCC once President Joe Biden finally fills out the agency and gives it a Democratic majority.
“The Biden FCC has the opportunity and responsibility to restore net neutrality and the authority the agency needs to regulate the nation’s biggest cable and phone companies. This investigation shows how low the industry will stoop to undermine even the most basic and benign safeguards. Agency leadership has a responsibility to root out such astroturfing efforts, restore public trust and access to the commenting system, and ensure that these companies can’t continue to manipulate the policymaking process.”