NY Attorney General finds 82% of public comments on net neutrality were fake

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

A review of public comments surrounding net neutrality action taken by the FCC in 2017 found that 82% of the nearly 22 million comments were bogus. Nearly half of the bogus comments were put together by lead generating companies working on behalf of an industry-led effort to support the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules. Meanwhile, millions of bogus comments in support of net neutrality were submitted by a single college sophomore in California. New York Attorney General Letitia James published a report with the specifics:

In April 2017, the country’s largest broadband companies banded together to fund a campaign to generate millions of comments for the FCC’s 2017 net neutrality rulemaking proceeding…

Nearly every lead generator that was engaged to enroll consumers in the broadband industry’s campaign fabricated consumers’ responses to the campaign. Most never even ran the broadband industry’s campaign solicitation; instead, they copied names and addresses they had purchased or collected months or years earlier through unrelated lead generation efforts, and passed it off as information submitted by consumers who had agreed to join the broadband industry’s campaign. One lead generator went a step further, copying information that had been stolen in a data breach and made available online.

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 OAG has not found evidence that the broadband companies or their lobbying firm had direct knowledge that the lead generators they had funded engaged in fraud…

The OAG found that a 19-year-old college student in California pursuing a degree in computer science submitted more than 7.7 million comments expressing support for net neutrality. All of the comments were fabricated. However, unlike the comments submitted through the BFA campaign, none of the 7.7 million comments used
the names or addresses of real people. Instead, the identities of the purported commenters were generated by randomly combining first names, last names, street numbers, street names, and cities, likely using a website called Fake Name Generator (fakenamegenerator.com).

In all, 21.7 million comments about net neutrality were submitted to the FCC. Of those, 8.5 million were generated under real names by the industry-funded effort to support repeal of net neutrality and 9.3 million were submitted under fake names to oppose the repeal. Of the latter group, 7.7 million came from the one college student mentioned above and another 1.6 million were generated by someone who hasn’t been identified yet.

The attorney general has reached an agreement with three of the lead generation companies which requires them to pay a total of $4 million dollars for their fraud. The broadband companies that funded all of this weren’t proven to have known what was being done on their behalf. As for the college student, his name never appears in the report and there’s no indication he’s been punished in any way, at least not so far.

In case you’ve forgotten the backstory to all of this, back in 2017 FCC Chairman Ajit Pai voted to end net neutrality rules put in place under the Obama administration. To say the decision was contentious would be underselling it. There was actually a bomb threat just prior to the vote which forced Chairman Pai to clear the room so police could check for explosives:

The FCC reconvened shortly afterwards and voted to repeal net neutrality. Pai would later have to cancel an appearance at a trade show because of death threats connected with the vote.

But prior to all of that the FCC accepted millions of “public” comments on the decision. Even before the vote was taken back in December 2017, the Wall Street Journal had discovered that many of the messages the FCC was receiving were fake. The Journal discovered some messages came from real but deceased people (part of the industry campaign for repeal) while others came from fictitious people including “Superman,” “Batman,” and “Elzor The Blarghmaster” who lived at 9632 Elm Road, Maywood, Illinois (probably the college student’s effort against repeal).

At the time, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (remember him) asked the FCC to postpone the net neutrality vote so the fake messages could be investigated. But the FCC rejected that request for delay stating that Chairman Pai hadn’t relied on any of the bogus comments to draft his proposal.

Does any of this really matter? New York’s AG argues that it does:

As this report makes clear, deception and fraud have infected public policymaking by agencies and legislatures, drowning out citizens’ voices with manufactured and fraudulent public comments, letters, and petitions (collectively referred to as “comments and messages” in this Recommendations section of the report). Reform is
badly needed.

It happens that in this case the number of fake comments submitted by each side were roughly even, but it’s not hard to imagine a case where some contentious rule is being debated and one sides manages to submit millions of Astroturf (fake grassroots) comments while the other side does not, skewing the perception of public support. That obviously shouldn’t happen and isn’t fair to the real people who actually cared enough to write to the agency, either for or against.

It’s probably safe to assume something like this happens every time there is a big public debate over a particular rule. The end result is that most people just assume the comment process is so full of Astroturf that it can’t be trusted and isn’t worth their time. They may in fact be right about that as things currently stand. But there are things the government could do to minimize some of this, i.e. verifying submissions come from real people instead of bots. The AG’s report ends with a series of recommendations along these lines.