A group backed by the largest internet service providers in the U.S. secretly funded the submission of millions of fraudulent comments opposing federal net neutrality rules, according to a report published Thursday by the New York Office of the Attorney General that surprises absolutely no one. The campaigns were, the OAG said, part of an effort to provide cover for former Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to kill the widely popular FCC net neutrality protections.
Of the 22 million public comments submitted to the FCC in 2017 ahead of its decision to overturn net neutrality protections, 18 million were fake, the NY OAG found. Nearly half of those fake comments, more than 8.5 million, supported overturning federal net neutrality rules and were submitted by firms paid by the nonprofit Broadband for America (BFA), investigators found. The astroturfing campaign was also behind half a million fraudulent letters to Congress. OAG investigators say BFA paid $4.2 million to three lead generation firms—Fluent, Opt-Intelligence, and React2Media—to submit the fraudulent comments.
Another 9.3 million fake comments in support of strong net neutrality rules were submitted by a single, unnamed 19-year-old California college student, the OAG report says. (LOL.)
Unlike the fake pro-net neutrality comments, which were submitted under entirely fabricated names and addresses, many of the BFA-funded comments used the names and addresses of real people, some of whom were dead. In some cases, the firms “used prizes—like gift cards and sweepstakes entries — to lure consumers to their websites and join the campaign,” according to the OAG. Rather than enlist these people to write their own comments opposing FCC net neutrality rules, the report says, the firms generated their own comments, which were submitted as part of the agency’s rulemaking process to create the appearance of opposition to FCC net neutrality protections.
According to the OAG report, “the vast majority of the funding [for the BFA’s campaigns] came from three of the nation’s largest broadband companies.” The OAG report does not name the companies responsible, and instead only names BFA.
Launched in 2009, BFA lists several of the largest ISPs in the U.S. among its members, including AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Cox, and CenturyLink. The other members are telecommunications lobbying groups including, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, CTIA – The Wireless Association, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), and USTelecom – The Broadband Association. Despite claiming that it “supports net neutrality,” BFA was a vocal opponent of the FCC reclassification of broadband services as “utilities” under Title II of the Communications Act, which gave the FCC authority to forbid ISPs from throttling internet traffic, blocking websites or online services, or prioritizing one site or service over another.
We’ve reached out to all the companies and organizations listed as BFA members and will update this post when we hear back. An attempt to contact BFA through its website would not send. (LOL.)
The BFA-funded comment campaigns included a web of intermediaries and subcontractors. Fluent, which is based in New York and is said to have submitted roughly 4.8 million fraudulent comments as part of the BFA campaign, “never obtained consent from any individuals to submit a comment on their behalf,” the report says. “In fact, it never asked a single person for their consent.” Opt-Intelligence, meanwhile, served as an intermediary and subcontracted the fake-comment work to Fluent and another intermediary, which in turn subcontracted that work to other companies, including React2Media, according to investigators. The OAG said Opt-Intelligence was “responsible” for 250,000 of the fake comments, while it pinned 329,000 fake comments on React2Media. In total, nine firms were involved in the BFA-backed campaigns, several of which are unnamed in the OAG report.
Beyond the fake comments submitted to the FCC, investigators say, BFA’s lobbying firm hired Fluent for two additional campaigns targeting members of Congress. In total, Fluent was responsible for 360,000 of the more than half a million fraudulent letters sent to U.S. lawmakers, according to the report.
In an agreement with the OAG, Fluent, Opt-Intelligence, and React2Media must pay $4.4 million in penalties and disgorgement and “adopt comprehensive reforms in future advocacy campaigns,” according to the OAG’s office.
The flood of fake comments was part of BFA’s plan to “manufacture” the appearance of support for overturning the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality protections, according to the OAG. “The broadband group believed this support—in conjunction with press outreach, social media campaigns, and coordinated filings from the broadband industry and free-market economists—would ‘give [FCC Chairman Ajit] Pai volume and intellectual cover’ for repeal,” the report says, quoting a March 2017 email between BFA executives and BFA’s lobbying arm. “Indeed, one broadband industry executive—himself a former chairman of the FCC—advised members of BFA’s executive committee, in an email, that ‘we want to make sure Pai can get those comments in so he can talk about the large number of comments supporting his position.’”
Rather than provide cover, however, the flood of fake comments became a scandal. In response, Pai, a two-time Courage Award winner, later blamed the fake comments on Russian accounts—despite the fact that the FCC denied in court filings that it had evidence to support this “fact,” as Pai called it.
Ultimately, the fake comment scandal—and the fact that Americans overwhelmingly support net neutrality protections—did nothing to dissuade the Pai-led FCC from overturning its net neutrality rules in December 2017. And since leaving office, Pai’s already received the cushy corporate position that goes to all government officials who bend the knee to corporate interests long enough.