Attorney General James Issues Report Detailing Millions of Fake Comments, Revealing Secret Campaign to Influence FCC’s 2017 Repeal of Net Neutrality Rules
Multi-Year Investigation Into 2017 Net Neutrality Rulemaking Finds 18 Million
Fake Comments Filed with FCC, Half a Million Fake Letters Sent to Congress
Broadband Industry Funded Six Companies That Engaged in
Illegal Activity and Impersonated Millions of Americans
AG James Announces Three Agreements Ending
Fraudulent Practices by Perpetrators of Fake Comments
NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James today released a report detailing the results of her office’s wide-ranging investigation into fake, public comments submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a 2017 proceeding to repeal net neutrality rules. Net neutrality prohibits broadband providers from blocking, slowing down, or charging companies to prioritize certain content on the internet. Attorney General James’ investigation uncovered widespread fraud, as well as abusive practices used to sway government policy — using masses of comments and messages to create the false impression of popular support. Additionally, Attorney General James today resolved investigations into three companies that contributed to the millions of fake comments submitted in the 2017 net neutrality proceeding.
“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. “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. From net neutrality rules to laws affecting criminal justice reform, health care, and more, these fake comments have simply been generated to influence too many government policies, 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.”
Through its investigation, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that, in 2017, the nation’s largest broadband companies funded a secret campaign to generate millions of comments to the FCC. Many of these comments provided “cover” for the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules. This practice — disguising an orchestrated, paid campaign as a grassroots effort, to create a false appearance of genuine, unpaid public support — is often referred to as astroturfing. To help generate these comments, the broadband industry engaged commercial lead generators that used prizes — like gift cards and sweepstakes entries — to lure consumers to their websites and join the campaign. However, nearly every lead generator that was hired to enroll consumers in the campaign, instead, simply fabricated consumers’ responses. As a result, more than 8.5 million fake comments that impersonated real people were submitted to the FCC, and more than half a million fake letters were sent to Congress.
The OAG also found that the FCC received another 9.3 million fake comments supporting net neutrality that used fictitious identities. Most of these comments were submitted by a single person — a 19-year old college student using automated software. In all, the OAG confirmed that nearly 18 million of the more than 22 million comments the FCC received in its 2017 proceeding to repeal net neutrality rules were fake.
Additionally, the OAG’s investigation revealed that the fraud perpetrated by the various lead generators infected other government proceedings as well. Three of the lead generation firms involved in the broadband industry’s net neutrality comment campaigns had also worked on more than 100 other, unrelated campaigns to influence regulatory agencies and public officials. In nearly all of these advocacy campaigns, the lead generation firms engaged in fraud. As a result, more than 1 million fake comments were generated for other rulemaking proceedings, and more than 3.5 million fake digital signatures for letters and petitions were generated for federal and state legislators and government officials across the nation.
Attorney General James’ report recommends several reforms to root out the deception and fraud that have infected public policymaking by agencies and legislatures, including encouraging:
- Advocacy groups to take steps to ensure they have obtained valid consent from an individual before submitting a comment or message to the government on their behalf,
- Agencies and legislatures that manage electronic systems that receive comments and messages to hold advocacy groups and their vendors more accountable for the comments they submit on behalf of individuals,
- Lawmakers to strengthen laws to deter the submission of deceptive and unauthorized comments to the government, and
- Agencies to adopt technical safeguards to protect against unauthorized bulk submissions using automation.
Attorney General James also, today, announced agreements with three of the lead generators that were responsible for millions of the fake comments submitted in the net neutrality proceeding: Fluent, Inc., responsible for approximately 4.8 million fraudulent comments; Opt-Intelligence, Inc., responsible for more than 250,000 fraudulent comments; and React2Media, Inc., responsible for approximately 329,000 comments in the net neutrality proceeding (all or nearly all of which were fraudulent). Fluent and React2Media were also responsible, collectively, for millions of fake comments and messages submitted in dozens of other advocacy campaigns. The agreements with the OAG require the companies to adopt comprehensive reforms in future advocacy campaigns and pay more than $4.4 million in penalties and disgorgement.
The OAG wishes to thank the offices of the attorneys general of Colorado, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia, as well as the San Diego district attorney’s office for their assistance in this matter.
This matter was handled by Assistant Attorney General Noah Stein and Special Enforcement Counsel Jordan Adler, with assistance from Assistant Attorneys General Ezra Sternstein and Hanna Baek, Internet Technology Analyst Joe Graham, and Legal Assistants Richard Borgia and Shirly Huang — all of the Bureau of Internet and Technology, under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Clark Russell and Bureau Chief Kim Berger; as well as Data Scientist Kenneth Morales, under the supervision of Deputy Director Megan Thorsfeldt and Director Jonathan Werberg of the Research and Analytics Department. The Bureau of Internet and Technology is a part of the Division for Economic Justice, which is overseen by Chief Deputy Attorney General Chris D’Angelo and First Deputy Jennifer Levy.