A new report by New York Attorney General Letitia James has revealed that the US broadband industry funded millions of fake comments – impersonating real people – to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2017, opposing net neutrality. The report, titled “Fake Comments: How U.S. Companies & Partisans Hack Democracy to Undermine Your Voice”, revealed that a non-profit called Broadband for America – made up of senior officials from broadband companies and trade groups – spent $4.2 million on over 8.5 million fake comments.
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all Internet traffic equally, with no fast lanes, extra charges, or slowing for specific content. Proponents of net neutrality say that it is vital for innovation and freedom of expression, allowing smaller companies to grow and thrive alongside bigger industry players and preventing ISPs from limiting online speech to those who can afford to pay extra.
One key aspect of net neutrality in the US is how ISPs should be classified under the Communications Act of 1934. If classified as Title II common carrier services, key to the economy and society, ISPs are more regulated by the FCC, which can enforce net neutrality. If classified as Title I information services, the little control the FCC has over them would allow them to do as they please with little regulation. The FCC classified ISPs as Title II in 2015. However, after Donald Trump was elected president and appointed Ajit Pai as chairman of the FCC, the FCC voted to repeal this and reclassify ISPs as Title I in 2017.
Before this 2017 proceeding, the FCC received around 22 million public comments, both for and against net neutrality. However, this new report revealed that more than 18 million of these were fake. Three companies – Fluent Inc, Opt-Intelligence Inc, and React2Media Inc – were identified as the lead generators of these fake comments, hired by Broadband for America to use prizes and gift cards to entice the public into joining the anti-net neutrality campaign. However, instead, these companies simply used customer identities to fake comments.
Among those whose identities were used for these fake comments were two senators, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. CBS reports that they wrote to Ajit Pai in 2018, saying "We were among those whose identities were misused to express viewpoints we do not hold."
The three named companies responsible are required to comprehensively reform future advocacy campaigns and have also been given penalties of $4.4 million. The report also states that Fluent Inc and React2Media inc were responsible for millions of fake comments in other advocacy campaigns.
Alongside the fake anti-net neutrality comments funded by Broadband for America, 9.3 million fake pro-net neutrality comments were revealed to originate from a 19-year-old college student using automated software.
“Americans voices are being drowned out by masses of fake comments and messages being submitted to the government to sway decision-making,” said Attorney General James in a statement. “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 policies and laws that govern our lives.”