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 providers working through a group called Broadband for America spent $ 4.2 million on the project, the attorney general said. The effort resulted in around nine million comments to the agency and letters to Congress in support of the rollback, which the investigation found almost all signed by people who had never consented to their names being used for such comments. Some of the names were instead obtained earlier in other marketing efforts and then used to post comments, 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 that represent the industry.
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.
“Rather than 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 Letitia James, the New York Attorney General, 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 scam. 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.
Broadband for America, AT&T, Charter, and Comcast did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The report provides a glimpse of how some broadband operators and their Washington agents have tried to shape the debate over the net neutrality rules that prohibit them from blocking, slowing down, or making people pay more to get content provide them faster.
Ajit Pai, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced a plan to lift the net neutrality rules in April 2017. Around the same time, Broadband for America began paying providers of lead generation services – companies that collect customers for customers as part of a marketing effort – millions of dollars to generate comments to 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.
According to investigators, more than nine million fake comments have been submitted to the FCC in support of the net neutrality rules. A 19-year-old computer science student was responsible for more than 7.7 million of 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.”