The New York Attorney General’s office has subpoenaed “more than a dozen telecommunications trade groups, lobbying contractors and Washington advocacy organizations,” the New York Times reported on Tuesday, seeking to determine whether they were behind the flood of fake public comments submitted before the Federal Communication Commission’s decision to revoke net neutrality rules last year.
Barbara Underwood, who became the state’s attorney general earlier this year after predecessor Eric Schneiderman resigned in disgrace, wants to see whether industry groups were behind a huge effort to pollute the 22 million letters filed to the FCC’s electronic comment filing system with fraudulent submissions. Many of the comments were filed using temporary or duplicate email addresses, and millions were repeated verbatim using industry-friendly scripts. A recent study from Stanford University researchers found that just 800,000 of the messages were unique, and of those 99.7 percent opposed the FCC’s decision.
The Times wrote that Underwood’s team has already determined that millions of the mass-submitted comments used real individuals’ names, amounting to identity fraud, and that there appears to be a clear link to a number of firms involved in the net neutrality debate:
Most strikingly, many comments on net neutrality were falsely submitted under the names of real people, in what amounted to mass acts of virtual identity theft. Some comments used the name of dead people. Ms. Underwood’s investigators have estimated that almost half of all of the comments — more than nine million — used stolen identities.
The investigation has traced comments submitted through bulk uploads and through an F.C.C. service that allows advocates to solicit public comments on their own websites and then transmit them to the agency. Investigators have identified four buckets of apparently fraudulent comments, each of which appears to have been associated with a particular network of advocacy organizations, trade groups and consultants, including at least some on both sides of the debate.
Sources told the Times that three companies were named in the subpoenas, including the industry-funded, anti-net neutrality coalition Broadband for America, former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed’s Century Strategies, and “conservative messaging firm” Media Bridge. (As the paper noted, one of Media Bridge’s press releases boasted that its client American Commitment had “submitted nearly 800,000 comments” on the issue.) Century Strategies told the Times the attorney general’s investigation should be focused on pro-net neutrality groups.
However, the Wall Street Journal reported that advocates for the net neutrality rules were also named, including Fight for the Future and Free Press. The Journal also wrote that Media Bridge managing partner Shane Cory, the former director of the right-wing Project Veritas project, said his group had submitted what he thought were real comments but that “bad actors” frustrated Media Bridge’s efforts. Cory put the blame on the FCC’s commenting system, which he said did not have tools to safeguard against abuse:
He said part of the blame lies with government agencies that put no limits on how comments are posted, not requiring verification of identity or commonly used tools to hinder bots. Mr. Pai has acknowledged the problem and recently told Congress the FCC was planning to improve its comments system to ward off fakery.
“Unfortunately, with no limits, it is the Wild West out there,” Mr. Cory said. “The corruption of the public process will happen—especially when you have billion-dollar questions at stake.”
A Free Press spokesperson told the Journal, “We are responding to their requests and welcome this inquiry.”
As BuzzFeed News noted, FCC chair and Donald Trump appointee Ajit Pai has previously cited the number of comments filed supporting the decision to revoke the rules (despite some opinion polls showing it was wildly unpopular). That’s in addition to the the fact that allegations of massive spamming in the comment process were widespread months before the FCC’s board of commissioners ever voted on the issue. The FCC also spread lies about a non-existent cyberattack on the commenting system following a May 7, 2017 segment on HBO host John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight asking viewers to submit comments, leading to accusations it was deliberately downplaying public comments opposed to the repeal.
“The F.C.C.’s public comment process was corrupted by millions of fake comments,” Underwood told the Times in a statement. “The law protects New Yorkers from deception and the misuse of their identities. My office will get to the bottom of what happened and hold accountable those responsible for using stolen identities to distort public opinion on net neutrality.”
Clarification: Media Bridge’s Shane Cory told Gizmodo in an email that bad actors had not directly “slipped in” to his group’s efforts to submit real comments to the FCC, but that the general submission of fake comments had frustrated Media Bridge’s campaign. We’ve clarified the distinction above.