Internet Providers Funded Campaign Yielding Millions of Fake Net Neutrality Comments, New York State Says

Companies hired by ISPs used consumers' identities without permission

Federal Communications Commission Seal
The fraud occurred as the Federal Communications Commission considered internet regulations.
Photo: Andrew Harrer/Getty Images

A report issued Thursday morning by New York’s attorney general says that some of the country’s biggest internet service providers helped fund a secret campaign that flooded the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with millions of fake comments supporting the repeal of net neutrality protections.

All told, fake comments accounted for nearly 18 million of the more than 22 million comments the FCC received during its 2017 rulemaking, the report says. Those comments were often cited as a reason the FCC voted in 2017 to eliminate net neutrality rules, which the agency had put in place during the Obama administration.

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Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be transmitted to consumers with the same quality and at the same speed, regardless of whether an internet service provider has a financial interest in promoting one website over another. The Obama-era rules had banned ISPs from blocking or throttling lawful content and from entering into paid-prioritization deals to create fast lanes only for services that agreed to pay for them.

Back in 2017, Consumer Reports and several other consumer advocacy organizations had concerns about the legitimacy of the comments being filed with the FCC. A Pew Research study that year suggested that more than half the 21 million comments filed were likely fake. A review of the comments by then-New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found that “hundreds of thousands” of submissions may have impersonated New York residents.

Thursday’s report supports those suspicions. It says that the broadband industry effort was run out of an organization called Broadband for America, which is funded by several industry associations “and three of the country’s largest internet companies,” which weren’t named. But AT&T, Charter, Comcast, and Cox, as well as CTIA-The Wireless Association, NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, and USTelecom-The Broadband Association, are all listed as members of Broadband for America.

Consumer Reports reached out to AT&T, Charter, Comcast, and USTelecom for comment, but didn’t receive an immediate response.

The campaign’s goal, according to the New York State report, was to create the impression of strong grassroots consumer support for rolling back net neutrality protections, which could give then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai  “volume and intellectual cover” for repealing the rules. The agency is supposed to use comments it receives from industry associations, public-interest groups, and consumers to shape the regulations it formulates. Broadband for America also hired lobbyists to convince legislators that consumers were in favor of removing the FCC’s net neutrality rules, the report says.

Broadband for America hired  ”lead-generation” companies, or marketers that could provide names and comments in favor of the repeal, the report says. However, the investigation found that instead of legitimately soliciting comments, “nearly every lead generator... fabricated consumers’ responses to the campaign.”

Some consumers were tricked into giving up their names with offers to enter sweepstakes, receive recipes, or get free trials for male enhancement products, according to the report. In other cases, the lead-generation companies simply copied names and addresses they had collected previously, or in one case, used personal data that had been stolen in a data breach.

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.”

“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,” Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement.

No charges were brought against the internet providers or industry association. The investigation didn’t find evidence that either the broadband companies or their lobbyists were aware of the fraudulent comments, though the report says they ignored several ”red flags” that should have raised suspicions.

"These findings by the New York attorney general are nothing short of alarming. Input from the public, whether it’s from groups like Consumer Reports, private companies, or everyday consumers, is essential to the rulemaking process at the Federal Communications Commission,” says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports. “When that process is hijacked by millions of fake comments, and they are then held up as support for a favored policy position by those in power, we lose faith in the very institutions that are charged with protecting consumers."

According to the report, the broadband industry spent $4.2 million in the effort, which sent 8.5 million fake comments to the FCC, and a half-million fake letters to Congress.

Not all the fake comments favored repealing the regulations. The investigation also found that, using automated software, a single California college student filed 7.7 million comments with the FCC in favor of keeping net neutrality. Unlike the other effort, which used the names and addresses of real people, the student generated comments with fake names and addresses.

The attorney general’s office said it had reached agreements with three of the six lead-generation services that had participated in the fraud. Those companies have agreed to pay $4 million in penalties, and more clearly disclose to consumers how their personal information is being used.

James K. Willcox

I've been a tech journalist for more years than I'm willing to admit. My specialties at CR are TVs, streaming media, audio, and TV and broadband services. In my spare time I build and play guitars and bass, ride motorcycles, and like to sail—hobbies I've not yet figured out how to safely combine.