New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office has revealed after an extensive investigation that the vast majority ― around 80% ― of comments made to the Federal Communications Commission about proposed changes to net neutrality laws were faked.
Around 40%, or 8.5 million comments, were funded by internet service providers in order to protect their interests. They included fabricated comments from dead people, some of which were discovered by their loved ones.
Although the fact that some of the FCC comments were fake was known back in 2017, the new report out of James’ office reveals the massive scale of the operation.
The report, released Thursday, detailed “a secret campaign, funded by the country’s largest broadband companies, to manufacture support for the repeal of existing net neutrality rules” in 2017.
It also found that a single teenager using a computer program was able to submit millions of comments in favor of maintaining net neutrality, in opposition to big business interests.
Net neutrality refers to the concept that internet service providers treat all internet content the same; that is, they cannot let you access some content faster than other content. Before the FCC ultimately voted to repeal net neutrality rules in the United States in late 2017, the agency had opened up a public comment period to encourage the public to weigh in with their preference.
Net neutrality enjoyed overwhelming public support regardless of party affiliation, including support from tech giants like Netflix and Facebook. Broadband providers vehemently oppose it in large part because they don’t want to be treated like utility companies, since that opens up the possibility of heavy federal regulation that could eat into profits.
The New York Attorney General’s office was unable to find evidence that any broadband companies had direct knowledge of the scam tactics, which were carried out by “lead generators” contracted by the companies. The office found that the broadband companies did not break New York law ― and thus did not name them ― but reached multimillion-dollar settlements with some of the lead generator companies.
The lead generators were supposed to encourage real people to provide information about themselves in exchange for marketing offers that included discounted children’s movies and free trials of male enhancement products.
Yet James’ office found that “nearly every lead generator that was hired” instead “simply fabricated consumers’ responses.”
Around 8.5 million FCC comments were faked as a result of the broadband industry’s effort to whip up anti-net neutrality sentiment. As the report notes, “disguising an orchestrated, paid campaign as a grassroots effort, to create a false appearance of genuine, unpaid public support ... is often referred to as astroturfing.”
The office found that there was some fraud on the part of those who wanted to keep net neutrality protections in place. A whopping 7.7 million FCC comments supporting net neutrality were sent by one 19-year-old college student, who is unnamed, and another 1.6 million were sent by an unknown source.
However the report noted that “[u]nlike 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 result was that 18 million of the more than 22 million comments sent to the FCC were not genuine.
“This type of fraud has significant consequences for our democracy,” reads the report, titled “How U.S. Companies & Partisans Hack Democracy to Undermine Your Voice.”
“Federal and state agencies rely on public comments to set standards that govern many aspects of our lives, from public health to consumer protection to the environment, and, in this case, the rules that govern how we share and consume content over the internet. Public comments can also influence legislators and the laws they enact,” it says.
James’ office made a series of recommendations to prevent such fraud from happening again, and at other agencies, which also use the internet to facilitate public commenting.
The office looked at “hundreds of millions” of records in the course of its investigation, which was completed with help from attorneys general offices in Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., along with the San Diego district attorney’s office.