Three companies responsible for millions of fake comments submitted to the Federal Communications Commission ahead of its 2017 vote to repeal net neutrality have entered into settlements with the New York Office of Attorney General.
New York Attorney General Letitia James announced the settlements Thursday along with the results of a multiyear investigation and recommendations for agencies to fix the comment-making process. According to the report, nearly all of the 22 million comments regarding the net neutrality vote were fraudulent and represent coordinated attempts to sway the process government agencies use to help guide decision-making when finalizing rules and regulations.
And when the FCC mulls changes to net neutrality—the policy that required internet service providers to provide users access to everything online at the same speed without prioritizing or slowing down any types of content—its commenting site tends to flood with traffic and controversy.
While 7.7 million fake comments were submitted by one college student who supported net neutrality, so-called lead generators coordinated by the industry group Broadband for America’s lobbying firm submitted more than 8.5 million fake comments against it. That campaign, largely funded by three of the nation’s largest broadband companies, also sent half a million fake letters to Congress to create the illusion of public support for the repeal of the rules that helped maintain internet freedom.
“This practice—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 press release announcing the report reads. “To help generate these comments, the broadband industry engaged commercial lead generators that used prizes—like gift cards and sweepstakes entries—to lure consumers to their websites and join the campaign. However, nearly every lead generator that was hired to enroll consumers in the campaign, instead, simply fabricated consumers’ responses.”
Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit group that advocates for digital rights and published a blog post in May 2017 raising concerns that anti-net neutrality comments may have been fake. The organization called for the reversal of net neutrality’s repeal and for criminal charges against executives of the companies funding the fraudulent campaign.
“To not hold these corporations, executives, and former high-ranking public officials accountable for this blatant attack on the democratic process would be an outrage,” Greer said in a statement. “It would be a green light for the rich and powerful to fund criminal activity in order to achieve their political goals against the will of the people. We believe the people who committed this crime, and those who funded it, should face criminal charges. This is white collar crime in its most dangerous form, because it affects the functioning of democracy itself. If our laws are not sufficient, Congress should strengthen them. And in the meantime, these executives should be fired, and lawmakers should investigate whether Ajit Pai or any other public officials had knowledge of their crimes.”
The three companies that settled with the New York Office of the Attorney general—Fluent, Inc., Opt-Intelligence, Inc., and React2Media, Inc.—were responsible for more than 5.3 million fake comments in total. As part of the agreements, the companies will pay more than $4.4 million in penalties and disgorgements. Fluent and React2Media had also engaged in the same fraudulent behavior to influence other regulatory agencies, lawmakers and public officials, according to the office.
The report is not the first round of drama regarding comments on the FCC vote. Back in the lead up to the vote, then-chief information officer for the FCC David Bray falsely claimed the agency’s comment system was subject to a distributed denial-of-service-attack when it went offline following a “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” episode on net neutrality. Instead, a subsequent FCC Office of Inspector General investigation concluded that delays were likely the result of a system unable to keep up with the mass of commenters that flocked to the site.
And despite lawmaker concerns that some of the 22 million comments submitted to the FCC may be fake, the FCC went ahead with its vote, repealing net neutrality regulations Dec. 14, 2017.
The attorney general’s office also called on the government to make technical changes to clean up the comment-making process in the report, calling for the institution of CAPTCHA security tests at a minimum.
“When the FCC opened the net neutrality rulemaking proceeding in mid-2017, there were few, if any, measures in place to prevent people from using automated software to submit comments through its website,” the report reads.
CAPTCHA tests won’t be enough, though. Agencies should find and implement strategies monitoring and mitigating automated traffic, according to the report.
In order to increase transparency, the report also recommends intermediaries like those hired by BFA’s lobbying organization be required with each comment submitted to disclose the intermediary’s identity as well as the identities of any parties that assisted in the generation or submission of the comments. Agencies should also punish advocacy organizations found to have submitted fake comments and lawmakers should strengthen impersonation laws and prohibit deceptive and unauthorized comments, according to the report.