Under Trump’s choice for chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, the Obama era net neutrality protections were done away with. The silver lining at the time was that Pai and his internet service provider (ISP) overlords were unable to take away the rights of individual states to decide whether or not they wanted to protect their own citizens. One of Pai’s first moves as chairman of the FCC was to announce this rollback and then open up the comment period to the public. Millions of comments flooded into the system and it crashed! Pai claimed that this mess was too much to handle and too hard to figure out and therefore, instead of actually trying to find out what the American public wanted out of their government, Pai would roll back net neutrality protections. It was a naked power grab.
Since that time, a pile of evidence has come out pointing to a lot of anti-net neutrality fraud being perpetrated in connection to the “cyber attack” and comment period. On Thursday, New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office released a report of their investigation into the 2017 FCC comment period debacle. Guess what? “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.” That means that more than 80% of the comments received were fraudulent. And guess what again? Many of those fake comments came after “the country’s largest broadband companies banded together to fund a campaign to generate millions of comments for the FCC’s 2017 net neutrality rulemaking proceeding.”
At the time of the comment crash, Pai offered up that maybe John Oliver’s comedy show—specifically his call to send comments to save net neutrality—had crashed the system. Pai furthered his lie and said the FCC had been under a cyber attack, but that most of the comments seemed to asking for Ajit Pai to free Americans from the restraints of net neutrality. What were those restraints? Never you mind, said Pai. And even though early evidence of telecommunication giants’ involvement in dubious shenanigans around a net neutrality repeal was evident, Pai—being a former Verizon lawyer and forever shill—threw his hands up that nothing could be done to untangle a cyber attack and serve the American people. Pai would later admit that the cyber attack was a fraud and that the comments were fraudulent, but he lied during his admission by revising history to say it was the Obama administration that presided over this fraud. The Trump years—crazy, right?
James’ report is a damning statement against the big ISPs in our country. Not only did they allegedly mine subscribers’ personal data in order to fake comments, their fraud included a multipronged fraudulent attack. According to the report, “more than half a million messages to members of Congress purportedly signed by their constituents” were sent by the broadband industry. And because the broadband industry knew it was perpetrating a fraud, they made sure to obfuscate the trail of their dirtbaggery.
The OAG’s investigation determined that the bulk of the broadband industry’s comments — nearly 80% — were expected to be collected through a type of lead generation known as co-registration. In co-registration, consumers are offered rewards — gift cards, sweepstakes entries, or an e-book of recipes, for example — for providing information about themselves and responding to a series of marketing offers. Marketing offers varied widely, and included everything from discounted children’s movies to free trials of male enhancement products, as shown in Figure 1. The broadband industry created solicitations to run alongside these marketing offers, asking consumers to join the campaign opposing net neutrality. Responses would be collected and used to generate comments. The remainder of the comments — roughly 20% — were to be generated using online ads placed on websites across the internet.
To conceal the true source of these comments, the broadband industry created webpages for the conservative-leaning advocacy groups through which visitors could submit comments to the FCC supporting repeal. Few comments were submitted through these webpages. But the pages created the impression that comments the FCC received had originated from the advocacy groups’ websites and reflected true grassroots support
The New York Attorney General’s office says that the broadband “engaged in fraud” all six times they generated leads this way. As a result, “nearly every comment and message the broadband industry submitted to the FCC and Congress was fake, signed using the names and addresses of millions of individuals without their knowledge or consent.” Protocol reports that the “AG's office reached agreements with three of the lead generation companies, Fluent, Opt-Intelligence and React2Media, which collectively agreed to pay more than $4 million in damages.” Unfortunately, James’ office did not find that the broadband industry itself had violated the laws—they just took advantage of lacking oversight.
The Wall Street Journal reports that “a three-year Government Accountability Office investigation into fake comments on regulatory proposals across the U.S. government is expected to be shared with members of Congress later this year.” James’ office found that this isn’t the first rodeo for these “lead generation companies,” and the report to Congress will likely uncover a world of fraudulent activities.
The impotence of a toothless FCC was seen during the global pandemic after Pai scrambled around to try and get various ISPs to sign onto a nonbinding pledge that they wouldn’t cut Americans and American businesses off from the internet during the pandemic for lack of payment; and that they might even lift their “unlimited” data caps so as to not gouge the millions of adults and children, using more bandwidth than ever before, as many were stuck in their homes. The good news is that the general popularity of consumer protections, and a president who isn’t entirely inside of the pocket of Sauron, means that those net neutrality protections should be coming back in the coming year.
The Biden administration has begun asking for a new round of comments on the matter from the American public. Maybe this time instead of the crass scam run by Pai and Republican operatives, a FCC interested in actually hearing what the majority of Americans want will offer to do the bidding … of the American people.