The Office of the New York Attorney General (OAG) published a report on Thursday revealing the results of a multi-year investigation that showed millions of the comments and letters of opposition to Net Neutrality that were sent to the FCC and Congress in 2017 during the repeal of Net Neutrality were faked by some of the largest Broadband companies in America.
"After a multi-year investigation, we found the nation's largest broadband companies funded a secret campaign to influence the FCC's repeal of net neutrality rules — resulting in millions of fake public comments impersonating Americans," New York Attoreny General Letitia James stated on Twitter. "These illegal schemes are unacceptable."
She clarified in a series of follow-up tweets, "the broadband industry hired marketing companies that co-opted and created identifies and filed nearly 18 million fake comments with the FCC and sent over half a million fake letters to Congress in support of the repeal. Today, we stopped three of these marketing companies from continuing their illegal behavior and recommended reforms to stop this type of fraud in the future. We will continue to shine a light on abuses and disinformation that drown out the voices of the American people."
The 39-page report that the OAG published on Thursday revealed that broadband companies spent 8.2 million dollars through the non-profit industry organization Broadband for America (BFA) to oppose Net Neutrality using secretive methods. These alleged underhanded methods included generating 9 million fake comments and letters that impersonated concerned American citizens in messages to both the FCC and the U.S. Congress.
"BFA’s efforts to amass millions of comments for the repeal of net neutrality rules proceeded along three parallel tracks, all funded by BFA’s industry participants, and coordinated and managed by the lobbying firm that BFA engaged," Thursday's report alleged. "Each track relied on for-profit “lead generation” firms — businesses that collect names, contact information, and other personal information from consumers and sell that information to third parties — to generate the millions of comments BFA wanted. In each case, the lead-generation companies responsible for getting individuals to sign on to these comments simply resorted to fraud in order to meet their goals."
The three Lead Generators mentioned in the report also allegedly corrupted 119 other advocacy campaigns due to their fraudulent actions, according to the report. Fluent, Digital Advertising Firm, and React2Media allegedly posted 4.6 million comments and messages that impersonated real people between the three of them. Those people who were impersonated but wanted to advocate against Net Neutrality had their voices very literally stolen from them.
In addition to the 9 million comments and half a million fraudulent letters to congress from the BFA's efforts, the New York report also pointed to 9.3 million additional fake comments on the FCC's website that were submitted using automated software. Of those, 7.7 million were submitted by a 19-year-old college student in California expressing support for Net Neutrality, while another 1.6 million fake comments were submitted by an unknown party. All of the comments were posted using fictitious identities.
The OAG finished its report by providing a number of recommendations to prevent this type of fraud from affecting U.S. policy decisions again. Their recommendations included:
- Advocacy groups must ensure valid consent by obtaining express informed consent and properly overseeing vendors
- Agencies and legislatures must make intermediaries accountable by mandating disclosure and changing the incentive structure to decrease "rampant fraud"
- Lawmakers must strengthen our laws to deter the fraud and impersonation that is threatening our discourse
- Agencies must implement better safeguards against automated submissions
In 2015, the FCC passed the 2015 Open Internet Order that reclassified the internet under Title 2 of the Telecommunications Act of 1934. This action identified broadband companies like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter as common carriers who were not allowed to privilege some internet traffic over other traffic. Absent the Net Neutrality rules, companies can privilege some service traffic over others.
Advocates for Net Neutrality fear that absent the rules, broadband providers have too much power over freedom of speech and can engage in a variety of abusive and anti-competitive behaviors by deciding which companies have access to fast network speeds.
Net neutrality regulations were struck down in an effort led by Trump's FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the former legal counsel to Verizon. The FCC passed the deceptively named Restoring Internet Freedom Order in 2017, which officially removed Net Neutrality regulations for good. In the lead-up to the decision to strike down Net Neutrality, the FCC sought public comments on their website. This is where most of the fraudulent comments mentioned in Thursday's report were posted.
Aaron is an esports reporter with a background in media, technology, and communication education.