NY AG accuses broadband companies of fueling fake net neutrality comments

FCC meeting room
An NY AG report concluded Broadband for America’s campaign contributed to the submission of 8.5 million fraudulent public comments to the FCC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report, which alleged a broadband group backed by big name providers including AT&T, Comcast and Charter fueled the submission of millions of fraudulent comments in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC's) 2017 net neutrality proceeding.

The report pointed the finger at telecom industry group Broadband for America (BFA), stating it sought to “manufacture ‘widespread grassroots support’” for the repeal of the FCC’s open internet protections. The group believed this would “’give [FCC Chairman Ajit] Pai volume and intellectual cover’ for repeal,” the report said.

To achieve this goal, the report claimed BFA, through its lobbying firm, paid millions to hire three lead generation companies, Fluent, Opt-Intelligence and React2Media. These companies were expected to use prizes to woo consumers to join BFA’s campaign in favor of repeal, but the report found all three instead “simply fabricated” consumer comments.

All told, the NY AG report concluded BFA’s campaign contributed to the submission of 8.5 million fraudulent public comments to the FCC as part of its rulemaking process, and more than 500,000 fake letters to Congress.

BFA could not be reached for comment.

RELATED: FCC admits it can’t track fake comments on electronic comment filing system

In a statement, James said that “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.”

James announced her office struck deals all three lead generation companies requiring them to adopt “comprehensive reforms in future advocacy campaigns and pay more than $4.4 million in penalties.”

The NY AG report determined a total of nearly 18 million (or around 80%) of the more than 22 million comments sent to the FCC during its rulemaking process were fake. Besides those generated by BFA's campaign, the report said that figure included 9.3 million fake comments in favor of net neutrality submitted by a 19-year-old student using automated software.

Behind BFA

AT&T, Charter, Comcast and Cox Communications are all members of BFA, according to its website, as are CTIA, NCTA – The Internet and Television Association, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and USTelecom.

The report noted budget documents reviewed as part of the NY AG’s investigation showed BFA spent approximately $8.2 million on its repeal campaign, with little more than half that sum spent on the lead generation efforts.

It added the “vast majority” of funding was contributed by “three of the nation’s largest broadband companies.” The report did not name the companies, but said one of the top three was alone responsible for a whopping 47% of the budget, with the other two each contributing 16%.

AT&T, Charter and Comcast did not respond to Fierce’s requests for comment.

Backstory

The FCC implemented net neutrality protections in 2015 under former Chairman Tom Wheeler, prohibiting blocking, throttling and paid prioritization. Two years later, however, then-Chairman Ajit Pai initiated a process to rollback those rules, asking the public to weigh in on whether and how the FCC should proceed.

RELATED: FCC Chairman Pai unveils net neutrality agenda, seeks to reclassify broadband as an information service

The rules were officially repealed in December 2017 over the objections of two of the agency’s five commissioners and despite concerns about a potential deluge of fake public comments. Eric Schneiderman, NY AG at the time, promptly announced plans to challenge the move in court.

In 2019, the FCC admitted it could not track the origin of comments submitted to its comment filing system in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from The New York Times, as the newspaper looked into claims of fake comment submissions.