Internet service providers funded an action that delivered millions of fake comments supporting the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of so-called net neutrality rules in 2017, the New York attorney general said Thursday.
Internet service providers working through a group called Broadband for America spent $ 4.2 million on the project, Attorney General Letitia James said. The effort resulted in roughly nine million comments to the agency and letters to Congress in support of the rollback. Almost all of them were signed by people who were found to have never consented to their names being used for such comments. Some of the names were previously obtained through other marketing efforts, officials said. The agency approved the repeal in late 2017.
Broadband for America’s members include some of America’s best-known Internet service providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Charter, as well as several trading groups.
Proponents of the repeal regularly cited the number of comments that were against the rules. Investigators said Broadband for America “commissioned and published a third-party study” detailing the number of comments submitted and informing FCC officials of their findings as part of their investigation.
“Instead of looking for real answers from the American people, marketing companies lure vulnerable people to their websites with freebies, co-opt their identities, and fabricate answers that giant corporations use to influence the policies and laws that govern our lives. Said Mrs. James in a statement.
According to the report, investigators had found no evidence that Broadband for America or the lobby company used for the campaign had knowledge of the fraud. However, the attorney general said some “major red flags” “appeared shortly after the campaign began and lasted for months, but still went unnoticed”.
The attorney general’s office announced it has entered into agreements with three involved “lead generation” services – Fluent, Opt-Intelligence and React2Media, companies that sell customers for customers as part of a marketing effort. As part of the agreements, the companies said they would tell individuals more clearly how their personal information was being used. The companies also agreed to pay fines of over $ 4 million.
In a statement, Fluent said the matter was “turned in a way that creates clarity and sets a new standard in the area of political advocacy.” It noted that many of the changes in the agreement “were adopted years ago”.
Broadband for America, AT&T, Charter, and Comcast did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The report offers a glimpse of how some broadband providers and their agents in Washington tried to shape the debate over the net neutrality rules that prohibited them from blocking, slowing down content, or making people pay more to get it faster to deploy.
Ajit Pai, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced a plan to repeal the rules in April 2017. Around the same time, Broadband for America began paying lead generation service providers millions of dollars to generate comments with the FCC and letters to Congress in support of the repeal.
Investigators said Broadband for America acted to give “cover” to Mr. Pai to lift broadband regulations. For years, ISPs have been resolutely opposed to attempts to regulate the industry, including by urging Congress to pass weaker rules instead.
In total, about 18 million of the 22 million comments sent to the FCC during the net neutrality rule debate were fake. More than nine million fake comments have been filed with the FCC in support of the rules, arguing that if it were repealed, consumers would pay more for a slower internet, according to investigators. A 19-year-old computer science student was responsible for more than 7.7 million of them.
Activist group Fight for the Future and several news outlets early raised concerns about the possibility that some of the comments were fake after people whose names appeared in messages to the FCC said they had not signed up with them.
“The public tapping should be a place for honest dialogue, but today’s report shows how the FCC’s net neutrality tapping has been flooded with fraud,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, the agency’s acting chairwoman, in a statement. “That was worrying at the time, because even then the widespread problems with recording were obvious.”