Nearly 18 Million Comments Urging Net Neutrality Repeal Were Fake, Report Says

A new report from the Office of the New York Attorney General found that the broadband industry funded a campaign that submitted 18 million fake comments supporting the 2017 repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules, the Associated Press reported.

The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) repeal of the rules allowed internet service providers to once again slow or block websites and apps or charge companies more for faster speeds to consumers.

More than 22 million comments resulted from the repeal proceedings, 18 million of which the attorney general's office found were fabricated. Broadband for America, an industry group, spent $4.2 million generating more than half of the fake FCC comments, and a half-million fake letters were sent to Congress, according to the attorney general.

The agency is supposed to use the comments it receives, from industry and public-industry groups and the public, to shape how it makes its rules.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

The Office of the New York Attorney General said in a new report on May 6, 2021, that a campaign funded by the broadband industry submitted millions of fake comments supporting the 2017 repeal of net neutrality. The Federal Communications Commission’s contentious 2017 repeal undid Obama-era rules that the broadband industry had sued to stop. Above, New York State Attorney General Letitia James takes a question at a news conference on August 6, 2020, in New York. Kathy Willens/AP Photo

One 19-year-old in California submitted more than 7.7 million pro-net neutrality comments. The attorney general's office did not identify the origins of another "distinct group" of more than 1.6 million pro-net neutrality comments, many of which used mailing addresses outside the U.S.

It has long been known that the tally included fake comments.

The goal of the broadband industry campaign, according to internal documents the attorney general's office received, was to make it seem like there was "widespread grassroots support" for the repeal of net neutrality that could give the FCC chairman at the time, Ajit Pai, "volume and intellectual cover" for the repeal.

The FCC did not immediately answer how or if it has changed its commenting process, but the acting chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel, said in a prepared statement that "widespread problems with the record" of the 2017 proceedings "was troubling at the time" and the agency has to learn and improve the commenting process.

Many expect the FCC to try to reinstate net neutrality rules once a third Democratic commissioner is appointed. The agency is currently split half Democrat and Republican, which makes undoing the repeal unlikely.

Broadband for America's website says its members include AT&T and Comcast, as well as major trade groups for the wireless, cable and telecom industries.

The campaign hired companies known as lead generators that created the fake comments, but that the attorney general's office had not found evidence that the broadband companies had "direct knowledge of fraud" and thus they had not violated New York law, according to the report.

Still, the report criticized the broadband industry group's behavior as "troubling," saying the campaign organizers ignored red flags and hid the broadband industry's involvement.

The lead generators copied names and addresses they had already collected and said those people had agreed to join the campaign against net neutrality, the report said. One company copied information that had been stolen in a data breach and posted online.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James also announced agreements with three of the companies that were responsible for millions of the fake comments—Fluent Inc., Opt-Intelligence Inc. and React2Media Inc.—that require them to change practices in future advocacy campaigns and pay $4.4 million in fines. The companies did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

The attorney general's office and other law enforcement agencies are still investigating ″other responsible parties," according to the report.

AT&T, Comcast and industry trade groups NCTA and USTelecom did not immediately respond to questions.

Ajit Pai
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai testifies during a hearing before Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee at Russell Senate Office Building on June 24, 2020, in Washington, D.C. The committee held a hearing to examine oversight of the FCC. Alex Wong/Getty Images