In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission appeared to receive a record-breaking 22 million comments regarding former Chairman Ajit Pai's proposal to revoke the previous administration's net neutrality rules.
As it turns out, 18 million of those comments were fake -- and nearly half were submitted on behalf of the broadband industry by lead-generation firms.
That's according to a new report from New York Attorney General Letitia James.
“In April 2017, the country’s largest broadband companies banded together to fund a campaign to generate millions of comments for the FCC’s 2017 net neutrality rulemaking proceeding,” the report states.
The campaign was funded by the industry group Broadband for America and three companies described by the attorney general as “among the biggest players in the United States internet, phone, and cable market, with more than 65 million American subscribers among them and a combined market value of approximately half a trillion dollars.”
How did the industry accomplish this? It hired a lobbying firm that contracted with lead generators that allegedly appropriated the names and addresses of web users who had provided the information in order to enter online sweepstakes, or receive gift cards or other benefits. In one case, a lead generator allegedly used names stolen in a data breach.
“In all, six lead generators funded by the broadband industry engaged in fraud,” the report says.
Three lead generators have already settled allegations over the fake comments: Fluent agreed to pay $3.7 million, React2Media agreed to pay $550,000 and Opt-Intelligence will pay $150,000. Fluent and React2Media are responsible for “millions” of fake comments in other advocacy campaigns, according to the report.
James' office didn't find evidence that the broadband companies or their lobbying firm had “direct knowledge” of the fraud, and didn't charge those companies with violating any law.
But the report says the companies and lobbyist had “red flags” of potential wrongdoing -- including complaints by people who learned their identities had been stolen.
It's worth noting that many of the pro-net neutrality comments were also fake. The report says a 19-year-old college student filed more than 7.7 million comments in support of the Obama-era rules, with made up names and addresses that likely came from the site FakeNameGenerator.com. The attorney general says an additional 1.6 million comments in favor of net neutrality were submitted using fake identities.
In 2017, the FCC voted to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules, which prohibited broadband carriers from blocking or throttling traffic, and from charging higher fees for prioritized delivery.
While the full details of the fake grass-roots campaign in favor of the repeal are only emerging now, net neutrality advocates called attention to the issue four years ago.
In May of 2017, after hearing of reports about suspicious comments, the group Fight for the Future launched the website Comcastroturf.com, which allowed people to search for their names in the FCC's net neutrality docket.
Shortly after launching, Fight for the Future received a cease-and-desist from the monitoring company LookingGlass Cyber Solutions, which accused the advocacy group of violating Comcast's trademark.
A spokesperson for the cable company later said the notice was sent by an outside vendor as part of its monitoring efforts, and that Comcast didn't plan to take action regarding the site.
The FCC also was clearly aware of the fake comments -- and publicly downplayed them. In December of 2017, when New York was in the early stages of its probe, the FCC told former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that the comments under investigation wouldn't affect the agency's vote.
"The Commission does not make policy decisions merely by tallying the comments on either side of a proposal to determine what position has greater support, not does it attribute greater weight to comments based on the submitter's identity," Thomas Johnson, former general counsel at the agency, said in a letter sent to Schneiderman.