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The US broadband industry funded millions of fake comments submitted to the Federal Communications Commission regarding the 2017 repeal of net neutrality, according to a report published Thursday by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Of the record-breaking 22 million public comments that the FCC received, a staggering 18 million were fake, James’ investigation found.
Millions of the fake comments, her office said, were funded by the broadband industry as part of a “secret campaign” to create the impression of grassroots opposition to net neutrality rules while the agency weighed repealing the policy.
“Americans’ voices are being drowned out by masses of fake comments and messages being submitted to the government to sway decision-making,” James said in a statement.
“Instead of actually looking for real responses from the American people, marketing companies are luring vulnerable individuals to their websites with freebies, co-opting their identities, and fabricating responses that giant corporations are then using to influence the policies and laws that govern our lives.”
The comments were left in the months after the Trump administration’s FCC chair, Ajit Pai, moved to overturn Obama-era rules enforcing net neutrality, a regulation that prohibited internet providers from choosing certain speeds for different websites.
The net neutrality rules, which enjoyed a majority of the public’s support, required a public comment period before being overturned.
James’ office said more than 8.5 million comments were generated through a campaign by a broadband industry group called Broadband for America, which spent $4.2 million generating the comments and sending letters to Congress.
James said the funding for the group came from three of the nation’s largest broadband companies, but did not name the companies.
The investigators found that the comments funded by the industry group were collected by so-called lead generation companies, which offered people rewards in exchange for their information.
But James’ report said that the lead generators also took names and addresses they had already collected in unrelated work and told the industry group that those people had agreed to join the campaign against net neutrality. One company even copied personal information that was stolen in a data breach.
The AG’s office determined that the three lead generation companies — Fluent Inc., Opt-Intelligence Inc. and React2Media Inc. — committed fraud, and had also participated in over 100 other advocacy campaigns unrelated to net neutrality.
James announced she reached agreements with the companies that required them to reform certain practices and pay $4.4 million in cumulative penalties.
Jame’s office did not name or penalize the broadband companies involved in the campaign because there was no evidence that the companies had “direct knowledge of fraud,” according to the new report.
But not all of the fake FCC comments came from the broadband industry, James’ report noted.
For example, the report notes that one 19-year-old college student submitted more than 7.7 million comments in favor of net neutrality. Since then, federal agencies have adopted greater security measures to block multiple comments coming from a single source, James said.
“From net neutrality rules to laws affecting criminal justice reform, health care, and more, these fake comments have simply been generated to influence too many government policies, which is why we are cracking down on this illegal and deceptive behavior,” James said.
“My office will continue to shine a spotlight on abuses and disinformation and ensure those who break the law are held accountable.”
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