The Office of New York Attorney General Letitia James has revealed in a new report that nearly 18 million of the more than 22 million comments the FCC received during its 2017 rulemaking were fake, intended to support the repeal of net neutrality, the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) should provide all online content equally and prevent them from favoring their own services or customers over their competitors.
A $4.2 million effort funded by Broadband for America, which includes major internet providers like AT&T, Comcast and Charter, reportedly accounted for more than 8.5 million of the fake FCC comments. Millions more were submitted by a teenage college student in California.
"The Office of the New York Attorney General (OAG) found that fake comments accounted for nearly 18 million of the more than 22 million comments the FCC received during its 2017 rulemaking," the AG's report reads. "This type of fraud has significant consequences for our democracy. Federal and state agencies rely on public comments to set standards that govern many aspects of our lives, from public health to consumer protection to the environment, and, in this case, the rules that govern how we share and consume content over the internet. Public comments can also influence legislators and the laws they enact."
"The OAG found that millions of fake comments were submitted through a secret campaign, funded by the country’s largest broadband companies, to manufacture support for the repeal of existing net neutrality rules using lead generators," the report continued. "And millions more were submitted by a 19- year old college student using made-up identities. The OAG also found that the FCC’s rulemaking proceeding was not unique. Some of the same parties and tactics have infected other rulemakings and processes for public engagement."
"These illegal schemes are unacceptable," AG James wrote on Twitter.
"Today, we stopped three of these marketing companies from continuing their illegal behavior and recommended reforms to stop this type of fraud in the future," she added. "We will continue to shine a light on abuses and disinformation that drown out the voices of the American people."
The Trump administration's net neutrality repeal, which the FCC referred to as the "Restoring Internet Freedom Order" and which rolled back Obama-era rules, took effect on June 11, 2018. The FCC, led by then-Chairman Ajit Pai, said that their move would replace "unnecessary, heavy-handed regulations dating back to 1934 with strong consumer protections, increased transparency and common-sense regulations that will promote investment and broadband deployment."
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel condemned the move at the time, arguing that it would give ISPs "the right to discriminate and favor the Internet traffic of those companies with whom they have pay-for-play arrangements and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road."