By Harry Baldock, Total Telecom
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received 22 million comments in 2019, 18 million of which have been shown to be fake
The Attorney General for New York, Letitia James, is claiming that the US broadband industry may have had a major hand in pushing for the repeal of net neutrality, paying various research companies to bombard the FCC with fake emails.
Net neutrality, the concept that broadband should treat all content equally, without blocking, slowing down, or charging to boost certain content, was repealed in 2017 under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai following fierce debate.
Now it is being suggested that a telecoms organisation called Broadband for America (BFA) – ostensibly an industry-funded non-profit organisation comprised of senior industry executives – paid $4.2 million to a number of survey companies as part of a campaign to influence the net neutrality debate.
During the net neutrality debate, the FCC received around 22 million comments, but around 18 million of these have been found to be fake, with 40% coming as a result of the BFA-funded campaign, according to James’s report.
Around 8.5 million of the fake comments were also found to use the names and personal information of real people without their consent.
“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,” read the report. “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.’”
Three of the advocacy companies contracted for this campaign, Fluent, Inc., Opt Intelligence, Inc., and React2Media, Inc, have already reached settlements with the government over misconduct, totalling around $4.4 million.
James’s report does not specifically name the companies funding BFA’s campaign, simply referring to “the nation’s largest broadband companies”, though it should be noted that the organisation reportedly includes industry giants, such as AT&T and Comcast.
To what extent any of the companies funding this campaign will be sanctioned remains unclear. The report itself found no evidence that the broadband companies or their lobbying firm had direct knowledge that the lead generating companies had engaged in fraud as part of the campaign.
Nonetheless, the sheer scale of this campaign of fake comments is worrying.
“Americans’ voices are being drowned out by masses of fake comments and messages being submitted to the government to sway decision-making,” said James. “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 polices and laws that govern our lives.”