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FCC’s Net-Neutrality Proposal Marred by Millions of Fake Comments - TechiLive.in

FCC’s Net-Neutrality Proposal Marred by Millions of Fake Comments

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Nearly 18 million fake comments were filed with the Federal Communications Commission over its proposal to scale back internet regulation, fueled by both opponents and supporters of the rule, an investigation by the New York attorney general’s office found.

A report by Attorney General Letitia James’s office highlighted companies that specialize in a little-known influence industry that generates made-up comments and often attaches the names of real people caught up in marketing ploys. The 18 million fake comments represented more than 80% of all public comments filed to the FCC on its net-neutrality proposal four years ago.

Investigators found that commenters were tricked into providing their personal information in exchange for lures that included sweepstakes entries, discounted children’s movies, a chicken-recipe cookbook and free trials for male enhancement pills. In other cases, names were reused from old campaigns and data breaches or just made up.

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About 8.5 million of the fake comments to the FCC derived from a $4.2 million campaign paid for by Broadband for America, an advocacy group funded by the nation’s top internet providers, in an effort to dump net neutrality, the Obama-era policy on equal treatment of internet traffic. Broadband for America and a lobbyist listed on the group’s tax forms didn’t immediately respond to emails or phone calls.

Investigators also found 9.3 million comments supporting net neutrality that used fictitious identities, most submitted by one California college student majoring in computer science. The then-19-year-old student was responsible for 7.7 million comments generated using websites that create names, physical addresses and email addresses, the report said.

On federal government web sites, public comments can influence the outcome of regulations affecting millions of people. A WSJ investigation has identified and analyzed thousands of fraudulent posts on issues such as FCC net neutrality rules and payday lending. Video/illustration: Heather Seidel/WSJ.

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The attorney general’s investigation began in 2017 as The Wall Street Journal published articles detailing that thousands of people said their names were used without their permission to post comments about FCC and other rules.

Moreover, half a million other comments received by Republican members of Congress also were fakes, the report said. They included 14,000 messages sent to Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who as a committee chairman investigated and issued his own report in 2019 on lobbyists’ manipulation of the government-comment process.

Mr. Portman said Thursday that he has called on the government to fix problems in comment systems so officials won’t be “drowned out by disinformation.”

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Ms. James, who continued an investigation launched by her predecessor, Barbara Underwood, said “Americans’ voices are being drowned out by masses of fake comments and messages being submitted to the government to sway decision-making.”

At issue is a business often called Astroturf lobbying—political campaigns designed to appear as if they are real grass-roots movements with broad support. Ms. James proposed new rules requiring advocacy groups to ensure they have obtained consent from individuals before submitting comments, and tougher technical standards for submitting comments.

Six firms funded by the broadband industry engaged in fraud, the report alleged. Three settled with the attorney general’s office and agreed to pay fines:

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Fluent Inc.,

which agreed to pay $3.7 million, React2Media Inc. ($550,000) and Opt-Intelligence Inc. ($150,000.)

The companies didn’t admit wrongdoing, but agreed to a number of provisions ensuring they have permission for any comments they are involved with submitting in the future. The investigation is ongoing.

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Separately, a three-year Government Accountability Office investigation into fake comments on regulatory proposals across the U.S. government is expected to be shared with members of Congress later this year.

The attorney general found these three firms previously had engaged in dozens of similar advocacy campaigns. Fluent had run 82 political advocacy campaigns that generated hundreds of thousands of fabricated comments on issues ranging from criminal-justice reform, data privacy, energy, gambling, healthcare, taxes and tobacco, the report said.

React2Media Inc. had engaged in at least 34 other campaigns in the U.S. between 2015 and 2018, submitting 160,000 messages, almost all manufactured, the report said.

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Fluent said in a statement that the company had years ago adopted most of the improvements proposed on Thursday by the attorney general to avoid future problems in a “non-core part of our business.” Barry Kallander, president of React2Media, declined to comment. Opt-Intelligence didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The investigation, aided by civil subpoenas that obtained emails and budget documents, found some of the vendors lied to Broadband for America when questions were raised about the volume and veracity of the comments.

Officials in the attorney general’s office said they didn’t find evidence that the group or wireless companies knew about the fraud. The report did conclude that the executives ignored red flags of fraud and false impersonation.

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“The way that they conducted their campaign hiding the broadband industry’s involvement, relying on lead generators that used commercial incentives to lure people to comment, and paying dubious vendors for volume rather than quality—is troubling,” the report said.

Planning documents obtained by the attorney general show that the goal of the campaign was aimed at FCC Chairman

Ajit Pai

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so he could argue that there was widespread grass-roots support to repeal the FCC’s net-neutrality regulations.

“This support—in conjunction with press outreach, social-media campaigns, and coordinated filings from the broadband industry and free-market economists—would ‘give Pai volume and intellectual cover’ for repeal,” the report said.

An email obtained by investigators from a member of the group’s executive committee said of the comment campaign: “We want to make sure Pai can get those comments in so he can talk about the large number of comments supporting his position.”

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A spokesman for Mr. Pai at the American Enterprise Institute, where he is now a fellow, declined to comment.

Corrections & Amplifications
About 8.5 million fake comments to the FCC’s net-neutrality proposal derived from a $4.2 million campaign paid for by Broadband for America. An earlier version of this article placed the campaign amount at $8.2 million, which included lobbying work beyond the effort to generate comments. (Corrected on May 6.)

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