When then-President Donald Trump's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tried to destroy net neutrality in 2017, everyone knew that millions of comments in favor of breaking net neutrality were bogus.
As then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said at the time, two million net neutrality comments were fake. Schneiderman said: "Moving forward with this vote would make a mockery of our public comment process and reward those who perpetrated this fraud to advance their own hidden agenda." Schneiderman was wrong.
His successor, Letitia James, found after a multi-year investigation that there had been "18 million fake comments with the FCC," including over 500,000 fake letters sent to Congress in support of the repeal.
Behind this vast majority of this astroturfing campaign was Broadband for America, a marketing group funded by the country's top ISPs. In classic 1984 doublespeak, it claims to be in favor of net neutrality while, in reality, being a group of its greatest enemies. Its members include AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, CTIA - The Wireless Association, Comcast, Cox, NCTA - The Internet & Television Association, Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), and USTelecom-The Broadband Association.
James reported: "After a multi-year investigation, we found the nation's largest broadband companies funded a secret campaign to influence the FCC's repeal of net neutrality rules -- resulting in millions of fake public comments impersonating Americans. These illegal schemes are unacceptable."
Altogether, 80% of all public FCC comments filed on its net-neutrality proposal four years ago came from the scammers. There was never, as Ajit Pai, then-FCC chairman and a former Verizon attorney claimed at the time, any mass support for destroying net neutrality. Pai, after leaving office, was hired as a partner by private equity firm Searchlight Capital Partners, where he works on telecom and ISP acquisitions.
James continued: "The broadband industry hired marketing companies that co-opted and created identities and filed nearly 18 million fake comments with the FCC and sent over half a million fake letters to Congress in support of the repeal. This practice was also used to influence other policies. Today, we stopped three of these marketing companies from continuing their illegal behavior and recommended reforms to stop this type of fraud in the future."
These three companies are Fluent, React2Media and Opt-Intelligence. They all settled with the attorney general's office and agreed to pay fines. They did not, however, admit to any wrongdoing. They did agree to get permission from anyone they quote in the future in comments purporting to represent public opinion. These businesses and at least three other companies were paid $4.2 million by Broadband for America. The investigation into this hack of democracy is still ongoing.
Where did the fake comments come from? The Office of the New York Attorney General (OAG) found that Broadband for America couldn't rely on real grassroots support since the public overwhelmingly supported robust net neutrality. So, it created them via co-registration lead generation. In coregistration, consumers are offered rewards, such as gift cards, sweepstakes entries, or an e-book, for providing personal information and responding to advertisements. These include everything from discounted children's movies to free trials of products.
To conceal the comments' true source, Broadband for America's contractors also created web pages for the conservative-leaning advocacy groups. Few comments, however, were submitted via these web pages. But they gave the impression that comments the FCC received came from Trump supporters.
In fairness, it wasn't just the anti-net neutrality forces that generated fake comments. A 19-year-old college student who supported net neutrality filed over 7.7 million pro-neutrality comments with the FCC. Unlike Broadband for America, he didn't use the names and addresses of real people without their consent. Instead, he automatically created comments using software-generated fake names and addresses.
The FCC, in theory, should have been able to spot this activity. In practice, it was clueless and didn't detect that millions of submissions were coming from a single IP address. The OAG also identified another group of 1.6 million pro-neutrality comments that were submitted using fictitious identities but hasn't been able to find out where they came from.
In the course of the investigation, the OAG found the FCC wasn't the only one being targeted by big business. The OAG found that fraudulent comment campaigns had also targeted policy decisions at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Energy Management at the US Department of the Interior.
Looking ahead, the OAG recommends several reforms to root out the deception and fraud that have infected public policy-making. These are
- Advocacy groups to take steps to ensure they have obtained valid consent from an individual before submitting a comment or message to the government on their behalf
- Agencies and legislatures that manage electronic systems that receive comments and messages to hold advocacy groups and their vendors more accountable for the comments they submit on behalf of individuals
- Lawmakers to strengthen laws to deter the submission of deceptive and unauthorized comments to the government
- Agencies to adopt technical safeguards to protect against unauthorized bulk submissions using automation.
Hopefully, all these changes will happen sooner than later. Democracy has enough trouble as it without businesses pretending to be millions of citizens.