Broadband companies funded ‘fake’ net neutrality comments, investigation finds

Greg Nash

American broadband companies funded a campaign that filed millions of fake comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over its proposal to repeal net neutrality regulations, an investigation by New York’s attorney general found.

Authorities said the industry poured more than $4.2 million through a nonprofit called Broadband for America into “lead generation” firms that created comments by using prizes to trick consumers into giving up personal information.

The three marketing firms used to generate the comments — Fluent, Opt-Intelligence, and React2Media — were required to implement “comprehensive reforms” and pay $4.4 million in penalties as a result of the investigation.

The office, however, did not uncover evidence that the broadband companies had direct knowledge of the alleged fraud and is not naming the firms for a “variety of reasons.”

Those allegedly fraudulent astroturfing efforts generated 8.5 million comments to the FCC, according to the investigation.

“Americans voices are being drowned out by masses of fake comments and messages being submitted to the government to sway decision-making,” New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) 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 polices and laws that govern our lives.”

The investigation also uncovered 9.3 million comments supporting net neutrality rules using fake identities, most of which were submitted by one college student in California.

“Unlike the broadband industry efforts described above that used the names and addresses of real people without their consent, these comments used fabricated names and addresses generated by software,” the report reads.

Overall, the investigation found that 18 million of the more than 22 million comments submitted to the FCC during the rulemaking process in 2017 were fake.

The FCC adopted net neutrality rules in 2015 which barred service providers from selectively discriminating against online traffic. The agency rolled back those restrictions on a 3-2 vote in 2017.

The Justice Department is also investigating the comments made in that period.

About 800,000 of the nearly 23 million comments were unique, and 99.7 percent of those were in favor of maintaining net neutrality, according to subsequent studies of the data.

Fight for the Future, a digital rights group that collected examples of fake comments on the net neutrality debate, is calling the FCC to immediately restore the Obama-era rules in the wake of Thursday’s report.

“The first thing that should happen is for the FCC to immediately reverse the fraudulent and unpopular repeal of net neutrality, given that we now know the process was irrefutably tainted by a corporate funded fraud campaign,” Evan Greer, the group’s director, said in a statement that also calls for a full investigation into the funding behind the fake comments.

–Updated at 2:55pm

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