Big Internet Providers Funded a Project Behind Fake Comments on Net Neutrality

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Internet service providers funded an effort that yielded millions of fake comments supporting the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of so-called net neutrality rules in 2017, the New York attorney general said on Thursday.

Internet providers, working through a group called Broadband for America, spent $4.2 million on the project, the attorney general said. The effort generated roughly nine million comments to the agency and letters to Congress backing the rollback, almost all of which were signed by people who had never agreed to the use of their names on such comments, according to the investigation. Some of the names had instead been obtained earlier, in other marketing efforts, and were then used to submit comments, officials said. The agency approved the repeal in late 2017.

Broadband for America’s members include some of America’s most prominent internet providers, like AT&T, Comcast and Charter, as well as several trade groups representing the industry.

Supporters of the repeal regularly cited the number of comments opposing the rules. Investigators said that Broadband for America had “commissioned and publicized a third-party study” of how many comments were being submitted, and then briefed F.C.C. officials on their findings as part of their push.

“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,” Letitia James, the New York attorney general, said in a statement.

The report said investigators had not found evidence that Broadband for America or the lobbying firm it used for the campaign were aware of the fraud. But, the attorney general said, several “significant red flags” had “appeared shortly after the campaign started, and continued for months yet still remained unheeded.”

The attorney general’s office said it had reached agreements with three “lead generation” services that were involved — Fluent, Opt-Intelligence and React2Media, companies that gather customers for clients as part of marketing efforts. Under the agreements, the companies said they would more clearly disclose to individuals how their personal information was being used. The companies also agreed to pay over $4 million in penalties.

Broadband for America, AT&T, Charter and Comcast did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The report offers a window into how some broadband providers and their representatives in Washington tried to shape the debate over the net neutrality rules, which forbid them from blocking content, slowing it down or making people pay more to deliver it faster.

Ajit Pai, then the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced a plan to repeal the net neutrality rules in April 2017. Around the same time, Broadband for America started to pay providers of lead generation services — companies that gather customers for clients as part of marketing efforts — millions of dollars to generate comments at the F.C.C. and letters to Congress supporting the repeal.

Investigators said that Broadband for America acted to give Mr. Pai “cover” to repeal the broadband regulations. The internet providers have staunchly opposed attempts to regulate the industry for years, including by pushing for Congress to approve weaker rules instead.

More than nine million fake comments were filed at the F.C.C. supporting the net neutrality rules, arguing that the rules would leave consumers paying more for a slower internet, according to investigators. A 19-year-old computer science 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 agency’s acting chairwoman, said in a statement. “This was troubling at the time because even then the widespread problems with the record were apparent.”