On Thursday, New York Attorney General (AG) Letitia James announced that her office has released a report detailing her office’s investigation into fake public comments submitted for the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2017 proceeding to repeal net neutrality rules, and securing $4.4 million in penalties and disgorgement from the violators.
According to the investigation, there was “widespread fraud” and “abusive practices used to sway government policy – using masses of comments and messages to create the false impression of popular support.” Specifically, AG James noted that the end of investigation into three companies, namely, Fluent Inc., Opt-Intelligence Inc., and React2Media Inc., concludes inquiry into these companies over their “millions of fake comments submitted in the 2017 net neutrality proceeding.” In these companies’ agreement with the OAG, they are required to adopt comprehensive reforms for future advocacy campaigns and pay more than $4.4 million in penalties and disgorgement.
Specifically, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that in 2017, the United States’ largest broadband companies “funded a secret campaign to generate millions of comments to the FCC.” Reportedly, a large portion of these comments covered the Commission’s repeal of net neutrality. In particular, AG James averred that the companies engaged in astroturfing, which is the practice of “disguising an orchestrated, paid campaign as a grassroots effort, to create a false appearance of genuine, unpaid public support.” The OAG asserted that in order to create these comments, the broadband industry used commercial lead generation companies, who used prizes such as gift cards and sweepstakes, to entice consumers to their websites to join this unlawful campaign. However, instead, almost all of the lead generators made fake consumer responses. Consequently, at least 8.5 million fake comments impersonating real people were submitted to the Commission and more than 500,000 fake letters were sent to Congress. Furthermore, more than 9.3 million fake comments supporting net neutrality were sent to the FCC using fictional identities. The OAG noted that “(m)ost of these comments were submitted by a single person – a 19-year old college student using automated software.” The investigation concluded that approximately 18 million out of more than 22 million comments that the FCC received were fake.
Moreover, the investigation also indicated that this lead-generator fraud also affected other government proceedings as three of the lead generator firms “also worked on more than 100 other, unrelated campaigns to influence regulatory agencies and public officials” and purportedly engaged in fraud. Consequently, an additional 1 million fake comments were made for other rulemakings and more than 3.5 million fake electronic signatures were generated for letters and petitions for legislators and other government officials.
“Americans voices are being drowned out by masses of fake comments and messages being submitted to the government to sway decision-making,” Attorney General James said in a press release. “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. But, today, we are taking action to root out this fraud and the impersonation that has been corrupting the process for far too long … which is why we are cracking down on this illegal and deceptive behavior. My office will continue to shine a spotlight on abuses and disinformation and ensure those who break the law are held accountable.”
The OAG’s report recommended several reforms, such as: advocacy groups ensuring they have obtained valid consent from an individual before submitting something on their behalf, government agencies and legislators managing electronic systems to hold advocacy groups and vendors more accountable for submitted comments/messages on behalf of individuals, stronger laws to deter this conduct, and technical safeguard to protect against unauthorized automated group submissions.