80% of the 22 million comments on net neutrality rollback were fake, investigation finds

Of the 22 million comments submitted to the FCC regarding 2017’s controversial rollback of net neutrality, some 18 million were fake, an investigation by the New York Attorney General’s office has found. The broadband industry funded the fraudulent creation of about 8.5 million of those, while a 19-year-old college student submitted 7.7 million, and the remainder came from unknown but spurious sources.

The damning report, issued today, is the result of years of work; it set up a tip line early on so people could report fraudulent comments, and no doubt received plenty, as people were already independently finding themselves, dead relatives and other obviously fake submissions among the record.

It turns out that a huge number of these comments were paid for by a consortium of broadband companies called Broadband for America, which laid out about $4.2 million for the purpose. They contracted with several “lead generator” companies, the kind of shady operations that offer you free trials of “male enhancement pills” or the like if you fill out a form — in this case, asking the person to write an anti-net-neutrality comment.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the lead-generation companies didn’t even bother plying their shady trade in what passes for an honest way; instead they fabricated the lists and comments with years-old data and, in one case, with identities stolen in a major data breach. The practice was near universal:

In all, six lead generators funded by the broadband industry engaged in fraud. As a result, nearly every comment and message the broadband industry submitted to the FCC and Congress was fake, signed using the names and addresses of millions of individuals without their knowledge or consent.

The broadband companies are off the hook on a technicality, since they were careful to firewall themselves from the practices of those they were contracting with, even though the record shows it was plain that the information being collected and used was fraudulent. But because the actions were, ostensibly, independently taken by the enterprising lead generators, the buck stops there.

Notably, these scams were also involved in more than a hundred other advocacy campaigns, including submitting over a million fake comments for an EPA proceeding and millions of other letters and digital comments.

The wholesale undermining of the processes of government earned fines of $3.7 million, $550,000 and $150,000 for Fluent Inc., React2Media and Opt-Intelligence, respectively. There are also “comprehensive reforms” imposed on them, though it may be best not to expect much from those.

Internet rights advocacy organization Fight for the Future issued a king-size “I told you so” noting that they had flagged this process at the time and helped bring it to the attention of both government officials and ordinary folks.

Another 7.7 million fake comments were submitted by a single person, a California college student who simply combined a fake name generation site with disposable email service to provide plausible identities. The person automated an individual comment submission process, and somehow the FCC’s systems didn’t flag it. Another unknown person used similar means to submit another 1.6 million fake comments.

Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement that “Today’s report demonstrates how the record informing the FCC’s net neutrality repeal was flooded with fraud. This was troubling at the time because even then the widespread problems with the record were apparent. We have to learn from these lessons and improve because the public deserves an open and fair opportunity to tell Washington what they think about the policies that affect their lives.”

Indeed, at the time, Rosenworcel suggested delaying the vote, joining many in the country who felt the scale of the shenanigans warranted further investigation — but then-Chairman Ajit Pai brushed aside their concerns, one of many decisions that have considerably tarnished his legacy.

Altogether it’s a pretty sad situation, and the broadband companies and their lobbyists get off without so much as a slap on the wrist. The NY AG report has a variety of recommendations, some of which no doubt have already been implemented or suggested as the FCC’s comment debacle became clear, but the bad guys definitely won this time.