The largest Internet providers in the US funded a campaign that generated “8.5 million fake comments” to the Federal Communications Commission as part of the ISPs’ fight against net neutrality rules during the Trump administration, according to a report issued today by New York State Attorney General Letitia James.
Nearly 18 million out of 22 million comments were fabricated, including both pro- and anti-net neutrality submissions, the report said. One 19-year-old submitted 7.7 million pro-net neutrality comments under fake, randomly generated names. But the astroturfing effort funded by the broadband industry stood out because it used real people’s names without their consent, with third-party firms hired by the industry faking consent records, the report said.
The NY AG’s office began its investigation in 2017 and said it faced stonewalling from then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who refused requests for evidence. But after a years-long process of obtaining and analyzing “tens of thousands of internal emails, planning documents, bank records, invoices, and data comprising hundreds of millions of records,” the NY AG said it “found that millions of fake comments were submitted through a secret campaign, funded by the country’s largest broadband companies, to manufacture support for the repeal of existing net neutrality rules using lead generators.”
It was clear before Pai completed the repeal in December 2017 that millions of people—including dead people—were impersonated in net neutrality comments. Even industry-funded research found that 98.5 percent of genuine comments opposed Pai’s deregulatory plan. But today’s report reveals more details about how many comments were fake and how the broadband industry was involved.
“The broadband industry could not, in fact, rely on grassroots support for its campaign because the public overwhelmingly supported robust net neutrality rules,” the report noted. “So the broadband industry tried to manufacture support for repeal by hiring companies to generate comments for a fee.”
Comcast, Charter, and AT&T biggest ISPs in group
The AG report said the industry campaign was run through Broadband for America (BFA), an umbrella group that includes Comcast, Charter, AT&T, Cox, and CenturyLink. Broadband for America also includes three trade groups, namely CTIA–The Wireless Association, NCTA–The Internet & Television Association, and the Telecommunications Industry Association. Verizon isn’t listed as a Broadband for America member, but it is part of the CTIA.
“BFA hid its role in the campaign by recruiting anti-regulation advocacy groups—unrelated to the broadband industry—to serve as the campaign’s public faces,” the AG report said.
The “primary funders” of Broadband for America’s anti-net neutrality campaign “included an industry trade group and three companies that are among the biggest players in the United States Internet, phone, and cable market, with more than 65 million American subscribers among them and a combined market value of approximately half a trillion dollars,” the report said.
Comcast, Charter, and AT&T are the biggest members of Broadband for America. Comcast has 31.1 million residential customers in the broadband, phone, and TV categories combined. Charter has 29.4 million such customers. AT&T has 14.1 million Internet customers and 15.9 million TV customers, but it’s not clear how much overlap there is between those two categories given that many DirecTV users don’t live in AT&T’s wireline territory.
The AG report mentions Comcast, Charter, and AT&T specifically without naming other providers. The sole mention of those ISPs came in a sentence saying, “Net neutrality refers to the principle that the companies that deliver Internet service to your home, business, and mobile phone, such as AT&T, Comcast, and Charter (often referred to as Internet service providers, ISPs, or broadband providers), should not discriminate among content on the Internet.”
No “direct knowledge” of fraud
With broadband companies having used third-party vendors to conduct the campaign, the AG said it found no evidence that ISPs themselves “had direct knowledge” of the fraudulent behavior. The broadband companies spent $8.2 million on their anti-net neutrality campaign, including $4.2 million to submit the 8.5 million comments to the FCC and a half-million letters to Congress, the report said.
“The vast majority of the funding came from three of the nation’s largest broadband companies, with one company contributing 47 percent of the budget and two other companies and a trade group contributing 16 percent each,” the report said. “Another broadband company and two other trade groups each contributed 1 percent to 2 percent.”
Anti-net neutrality comments were supposed to provide “cover” to Pai.
“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 AG’s report said. “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.'” The NCTA is led by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell. a Republican who opposes net neutrality rules and who led an FCC vote in 2002 that prevented common-carrier regulation of cable Internet service.
18 million comments “were entirely fabricated”
Overall, nearly 18 million out of over 22 million comments “were entirely fabricated and did not reflect people’s real viewpoints, with more than 8.5 million of those comments using the names and personal information of real people without their knowledge or consent,” the report said.
More than 7.7 million fake comments supporting net neutrality were submitted by “a 19-year-old college student in California pursuing a degree in computer science,” the report said. Another 1.6 million fake comments supporting net neutrality were submitted by “an unknown party.”
While the numbers of fake comments were roughly equal in “supporting” or “opposing” net neutrality, the NY AG report said the broadband industry’s campaign to generate fake comments opposing net neutrality was unique in that the “campaign organizers ignored red flags of fraud and impersonation.”
“Fraudulent comments that also impersonate individuals, like the millions of comments submitted by the broadband industry, compound the harm by subverting individuals’ policy preferences and control over their own identities,” the report said.
The 19-year-old’s campaign supporting net neutrality generated fake comments but didn’t include impersonation, the report said:
A 19-year old college student who opposed the repeal of net neutrality was able to file over 7.7 million pro-neutrality comments with the FCC. Unlike the broadband industry efforts described above that used the names and addresses of real people without their consent, these comments used fabricated names and addresses generated by software. The FCC had few safeguards in place to detect or prevent millions of submissions from a single source. The OAG [Office of the Attorney General] also identified another group of 1.6 million pro-neutrality comments that were submitted using fictitious identities but has not determined the source of these comments.
The industry’s use of third-party vendors apparently shielded them from direct knowledge of illegal behavior, the AG report said:
[T]he conduct of these broadband companies and their lobbying firm raises serious concerns. These companies hid their involvement in a multi-million-dollar campaign that generated what turned out to be millions of fake comments. The OAG’s investigation has demonstrated that the broadband companies’ campaign organizers ignored several significant red flags as to the authenticity of the comments that were generated and the integrity of the process. Their limited oversight over the lead generators they had engaged, and the campaign as a whole, provided a fertile environment for lead generators to engage in fraud and deception.