An organization run by a former Trump campaign statewide director is being investigated by the New York attorney general’s office for its role in the submission of potentially hundreds of thousands of fraudulent comments to the Federal Communications Commission during the agency’s 2017 efforts to rollback Obama-era net neutrality rules.
Research by Gizmodo reveals the group’s deep ties to prominent GOP firms, including one paid more than $31 million by the Republican National Committee (RNC) to provide email lists of potential voters during the 2016 campaign. Americans whose names were attached to fraudulent FCC comments linked to the ex-Trump campaign staffer confirmed during a series of interviews that their identities had been stolen.
Asked how their names wound up on the FCC’s website next comments slamming “wealthy leftist billionaires and powerful Silicon Valley monopolies,” the residents of Sharpsburg, Georgia, were reasonably confused. Like two retirees in their 80s whom Gizmodo spoke with on Wednesday, many residents say they’ve never even heard of net neutrality.
But in Sharpsburg, a town of less than 400, roughly a quarter of the population seemingly filed comments with the FCC about net neutrality—at least according to its website. Of those comments, 37 are perfectly identical: “It took only two years and a green light from Obama for companies like Google and Facebook and their liberal allies like George Soros to take total control of the dominant information and communications platform in the world today,” they read. “The future of a free and open Internet is at stake.”
The husband of one of Sharpsburg’s purported commenters insists that no one in his home is political. “We don’t do anything that has to do with the government,” he said, straining to understand the implications of someone impersonating his wife on a government website. Another resident, reached by email on Wednesday, and asked if she’d submitted a comment to the FCC, offered a short, but emphatic reply: “No I did NOT.”
“Whoever did this is stupid,” said another man, after learning his name and address had been used without his consent. “They won’t find my IP address anywhere near this. And I’d be happy to talk to police about it.” A total of five Sharpsburg residents, whose names had been used to send identical comments to the FCC, told Gizmodo this week that their identities must have been stolen.
More than a year ago, another resident of the small, predominately white town, less than 50 miles south of Atlanta, was also struggling to understand how so many of his neighbors had gotten riled up about the FCC policy, which would be overturned in a party-line vote a few weeks later. On Medium, James Harvey documented his efforts going door to door asking the question. Recalling Harvey’s efforts a month prior to the December 2017 FCC vote, Quartz reported that he had spoken to around 10 residents of Sharpsburg to whom FCC comments had been attributed. None said they had sent them.
“In our current era of lightning fast streams of information, it is up to each and every one of us to learn to see through falsehoods and propaganda,” wrote Harvey, who learned that one man’s obituary predated his comment by more than a year.
What’s remained unreported until now is the source of the 37 identical Sharpsburg comments, which match those submitted on behalf of more than 300,000 Americans nationwide. That comment, which rails against Google, its former chairman Eric Schmidt, and “global billionaires like George Soros,” was authored by a group known as Free Our Internet, according to a page on its website, which has since been deleted.
Free Our Internet’s campaign against net neutrality, which it presents as a conspiracy by “liberal globalists to take over our Internet,” was first announced in a now-deleted press release on the website of Raven Strategies, a political consultancy whose client list includes, among others, Donald Trump for President.
Christie-Lee McNally, the president of Raven Strategies and the executive director of Free Our Internet, was tapped by Trump two years ago to become his statewide director in Maine, where she formerly served as executive director for the Republican Party. According to the bio on her firm’s website, she also served on the 58th presidential inaugural committee, working with cabinet-level nominees on the day of Trump’s swearing-in.
Her organization, Free Our Internet, is also the subject of one of 14 subpoenas issued in October by the New York attorney general’s office, which, like the Department of Justice, is currently investigating widespread accounts of identity theft related to the FCC’s net neutrality process.
Three months ago, investigators in New York overseen by then-state Attorney General Barbara Underwood, identified what they called four “buckets” of comments suspected of being counterfeit. Out of the more than 22 million comments submitted to the FCC about net neutrality in 2017, investigators believe that as many as 9.53 million involved the use of stolen identities. These buckets include multiple trade associations, advocacy groups, and lobbying contractors, both for and against the net neutrality rules.
In an email obtained by Gizmodo to reporters at other news sites in October, Underwood’s staff provided, on condition of anonymity, a list of the four “buckets” and the parties each contain. But McNally’s group, Free Our Internet, while listed in one of the buckets, is not among those to be previously reported on. This is likely because the focus has, until now, been on larger and more prominently known organizations, such as the Center for Individual Freedom (CFIF), a decades-old dark-money group founded by former tobacco industry executives to, initially, combat government restrictions on smoking.
Today, with funding from Republican figures like Karl Rove, CFIF lobbies to overturn FCC rules and policies disapproved of by the telecommunications industry. The comments it contributed about net neutrality are now being scrutinized by both state and federal law enforcement agencies for any trace of stolen identities.
By comparison, Free Our Internet has a small online footprint—this despite being the apparent source of upwards of 800,000 gathered comments. The organization’s submission page, meant to be the online portal through which all those comments were collected, has been tweeted no more than two dozen times. Free Our Internet’s website was boosted on occasion, however, by a few well-known characters on the far-right, such as longtime Trump adviser and self-described “dirty trickster” Roger Stone and his one-time friend, conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi.
On Tuesday, Stone pleaded not guilty in federal court to charges of lying to Congress and obstructing the special counsel’s Russia investigation. (Incidentally, in October, federal prosecutors also described in the indictment of Russian accountant Elena Khusyaynova how net neutrality became a key focus of Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at exploiting Americans’ existing political and societal divisions.)
Writing on the topic of net neutrality, which is attributed to Stone—but which is suspiciously granular in its take on U.S. communications policies—mirrors closely the advocacy literature drafted by McNally and Free Our Internet. In a Daily Caller op-ed awash in anti-Semitic dogwhistles in October 2017, Stone claimed that net neutrality was a conspiracy by the “Tech Left, largely funded by George Soros,” whose motivation, he wrote, is “ridding the Internet of conservative and libertarian content.” (An obscure descriptor, “tech left” is frequently used by McNally in op-eds published by Breitbart News.)
One net neutrality letter authored by Free Our Internet, submitted to the FCC at least 181,101 times, similarly reads: “I strongly encourage the FCC to oppose efforts by the TechLeft and liberal globalists to take over our Internet.” The letter insists further that net neutrality is the brainchild of “Silicon Valley monopolies like Google and leftist globalists like George Soros.”
In a June 2017 press release, which Corsi highlighted in a blog on conspiracy site InfoWars, McNally is quoted again referencing the “globalist elites like George Soros,” whom she says “launched a coordinated campaign with the Obama Administration to establish government control over our internet.” Corsi’s article continued: “As Infowars.com has repeatedly warned, Soros-allied forces on the far-left coined the intentionally deceptive ‘Net Neutrality’ phrase to deceive the public into thinking the Obama-era rules would preserve the Internet as a free marketplace of ideas, when the reality remains ‘Net Neutrality’ rules were designed to accomplish precisely the opposite.”
Notably, there’s negligible contrast between the “globalist” theories pushed by McNally, Stone, and Corsi, and those that had circulated two years prior on the prominent neo-Nazi website Stormfront, whose users are less prone to masking prejudices with code words. (The term “globalists” and Soros himself, whose home was targeted by a pipe bomb last year, are frequently crucial elements of conspiracy theories with strong anti-Semitic elements.)
In an early 2015 post, one Stormfront user wrote regarding net neutrality: “The fact that the lobbying for this measure was sponsored (to the tune of tens of millions of dollars) by George Soros (who is not only one of the wealthiest of the 1% but also a well-known sponsor of far-Left causes and a Jew) should be ringing alarm bells in your head.”
There also exists tentative ties between Free Our Internet and organizations funded by Big Telecom. Among the financial supporters listed on the group’s website is the conservative National Hispanic Fund (NHF), which is reported to receive funding telecom lobbyists. NHF has also been listed as a member of Broadband for America, which is another of the 14 parties subpoenaed by the New York attorney general. Citing leaked tax records, Vice News previously reported that, in 2012, Broadband for America took in more than half its funding, or $2 million, from the National Cable and Telecom Association (NCTA), a trade group that represents, among others, the Comcast Corporation and Cox Communications.
Free Our Internet also lists America’s Future Fund PAC and an “anonymous foundation supporter” among its donors.
McNally and Stone did not respond to a request for comment.
The Free Our Internet comments, which the residents of Sharpsburg insist they didn’t submit, were uploaded in bulk files to the FCC’s website in May 2017. While users can visit the commission’s website and submit unique comments they’ve written themselves, it is now more common for advocacy groups to gather comments on their own, and then submit them to the FCC in large batches using its API. These comments are often identical, with users simply attaching their names to statements pre-written by the groups. For this reason, not all identical comments can be written off as the work of bots or stolen identities.
But typically, these organizations submit the comments using email accounts that are clearly marked as belonging to a specific person or group. It stands to reason, if the comments are legitimate, there’s no reason to anonymize their source. The comments submitted by the digital rights group Fight for the Future, for instance, can be clearly identified as uploaded by a member of its staff. In the case of Free Our Internet’s comments, however, the person who uploaded them took special care not to be identified.
Independent journalist Jason Prechtel, in a recent Medium post, released a cache of Microsoft Excel files obtained from the FCC under the Freedom of Information Act, which, Prechtel wrote, “collectively contain nearly 3.4 million rows filled with name, address, and comment data corresponding to the submission fields” used by the FCC’s comment system. This data, which he sued the FCC to obtain, represents roughly 15 percent of the total comments submitted to the commission during the net neutrality public-commenting period.
The comments originating from Free Our Internet referencing “leftist globalists like George Soros” were submitted using a toss-away account registered with anonymous-email provider Hide My Ass. Although unconfirmed, it also appears the uploader may have committed an error, which may help investigators in uncovering their identity.
The Free Our Internet comments are contained in files using a unique naming convention: For example, one batch file is labeled 2017508FOI.csv, with “FOI” being a reference to Free Our Internet. Notably, the same account uploaded other files with that same name format that include the initials “TPA,” an apparent reference to a separate organization called Taxpayer Protection Alliance (TPA). The New York attorney general’s office likewise believes TPA submitted fraudulent comments, potentially on behalf of, or in coordination with, Free Our Internet, according to the October email to reporters.
As Prechtel notes, the same Hide My Ass account (fccfreedom@hmamail) also uploaded multiple files using a different format: F2017509-2.csv; T2017509-2.csv; F2017510-1.csv; et cetera. An initial, followed by a date, followed by a hyphen, and then a number.
Two hours after the last upload from the Hide My Ass account in May 2017, another email address began uploading files in the same format: An initial, followed by a date, followed by a hyphen, and then a number. In this instance, however, the email account behind the uploads was not created using a service whose aim is anonymity, but was registered instead with Apple. Moreover, the same Apple account is also seen in the logs uploading its own batch of “FOI” comments.
The New York investigators believe these particular sets of comments may be further connected to a GOP consultant named Ethan Eilon, who’s worked for assorted Republican campaigns and organizations, including Vertical Strategies, a political firm that’s also been subpoenaed.
Another group, Protect Internet Freedom, was also subpoenaed and is listed in the same bucket alongside Free Our Internet and Eilon, who previously served on its advisory board. It’s national director, Drew Johnson, a Daily Caller columnist, served as a senior scholar at the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, according to a now-deleted bio on the group’s former website.
It has also been documented—and confirmed by Gizmodo—that in the code of a defunct comment submission page run by Protect Internet Freedom, there contains an iframe element calling the website ConnectFCC.com. This site is registered to entity called “Net Freedom Ring,” which is run by McNally, and is basically synonymous with Free Our Internet (as is seen in this tweet promoting a Roger Stone InfoWars interview).
Gizmodo, using domain tools, found that multiple Protect Internet Freedom websites—including DontTreadOnTheNet.com—were cohosted on a server with numerous conservative groups of which Eilon either ran or has been a member, such as the College Republican National Committee (CRNC). The domains additionally include several GOP campaign websites and a firm called Conservative Connector, which according to campaign finance records, received during the 2016 cycle more than $31 million from the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising effort by the RNC and Trump campaign.
Conservative Connector, which Eilon helmed with ex-Rand Paul adviser John Yob, was profiled in December 2016 by the Washington Post. The coverage of it marvels at the fact that a “small Michigan-based firm” has risen to become the RNC’s primary email list provider.
While Eilon, who could not be reached for comment, is among the parties subpoenaed by the New York attorney general, as of October, neither Conservative Connector nor Yob had been served. It remains unknown, however, which individuals and groups are being scrutinized in the Justice Department investigation, which was first revealed last month by former BuzzFeed reporter Kevin Collier and data editor Jeremy Singer-Vine.
Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat of Oregon, who has repeatedly pressed the FCC for answers about potential malfeasance during the net neutrality process, said it was clear that “dirty tricks” had been used, including identity theft, to generate millions of fake comments ascribed to real Americans.
“It is especially troubling,” he told Gizmodo, “that someone closely associated with the Trump campaign may have been the mastermind behind the underhanded, likely illegal, tactics waged against internet freedom.”
The New York attorney general’s office declined to comment citing an ongoing investigation.
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