Internet providers spent millions of dollars to flood the Federal Communication Commission with fake comments supporting its net neutrality repeal, The New York Times reports.
New York Attorney General Letitia James said Thursday that internet companies used a group called Broadband for America to spend $4.2 million to fund about 8.5 million fake comments in 2017.
Broadband for America’s members include AT&T, Comcast, Charter, and others.
Almost all of the comments were signed by people who had not agreed to use their names on the comments, according to James. Some of the names were obtained in earlier marketing efforts.
The FCC approved the repeal of net neutrality rules in 2017. Supporters of the repeal cited the large number of comments submitted to the agency backing the repeal.
Investigators said Broadband for America “commissioned and publicized a third-party study” on the number of comments and briefed the FCC on their findings.
“Significant red flags”:
James said Thursday that there is no evidence that Broadband for America was aware of the fraud but said that several “significant red flags” appeared “shortly after the campaign started, and continued for months yet still remained unheeded.”
“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 policies and laws that govern our lives,” James said.
James’ office said that it had reached agreements with three lead generation services involved to disclose to individuals how their information is being used and to pay over $4 million in penalties.
Companies aimed to give FCC chief “cover”:
Then-FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai announced in April 2017 that the agency planned to repeal net neutrality rules. Broadband for America began paying lead generation services millions around the same time to generate comments to the FCC.
Investigators said the effort was intended to give Pai “cover” to repeal the rules.
In total, about 18 million of the 22 million comments sent to the FCC were fake. A 19-year-old student was responsible for more than 7.7 million of them.
“The public record should be a place for honest dialogue, but today’s report demonstrates how the record informing the F.C.C.’s net neutrality repeal was flooded with fraud,” Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairwoman of the activist group Fight for the Future, told the Times. “This was troubling at the time because even then the widespread problems with the record were apparent.”