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7 May 2021updated 29 Jun 2021 1:23pm

Millions of fake comments give a glimpse of the telecom industry’s dark lobbying machine

A new investigation has revealed that the broadband sector's 2017 campaign to repeal net neutrality laws was underpinned by fraud.

By Oscar Williams

In April 2017, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Ajit Pai made the defining decision of his highly controversial tenure. An appointee of Donald Trump who had worked as a lawyer for the telecom giant Verizon, Pai began the process of dismantling Obama-era legislation that had enshrined in law a fundamental principle of the open web: that telecom firms should treat all websites equally.

By the end of the year, Pai had repealed the “net neutrality” legislation, sparking fears that telecom firms would give preferential treatment to the largest sites. Unlike many of the policy decisions that characterised Trump’s presidency, the move didn’t divide Americans along party political lines: it was universally unpopular, with 75 per cent of Republicans and 89 per cent of Democrats opposing it.

But the broadband industry was determined to tell a different story. An investigation by the New York State Office of the Attorney General (OAG) revealed on 6 May that a trade group called Broadband for America enlisted several marketing firms to encourage citizens to submit comments expressing their support for repealing the laws. The report reveals that the trade group did so in the hope that the campaign, coupled with an effective media strategy and carefully selected expert testimony, would “give Pai volume and intellectual cover” for repeal.

In reality, the marketing firms took a different approach. Instead, the report states, “they copied names and addresses they had purchased or collected months or years earlier through unrelated lead generation efforts, and passed it off as information submitted by consumers who had agreed to join the broadband industry’s campaign. One lead generator went a step further, copying information that had been stolen in a data breach and made available online.”

The FCC’s verification process was so lax that a 19-year-old computer science student was able to submit 7.7 million comments that were in favour of net neutrality on behalf of individuals who did not exist. In total, nearly 18 million of the 22 million comments submitted to the FCC in the run-up to its decision to repeal the legislation were fake.

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The OAG has fined three companies involved in the scheme more than $4.4m (£3.2m). The OAG said the companies will need to “adopt comprehensive reforms” in future campaigns. But the telecom industry itself has so far evaded any repercussions. The OAG’s investigation didn’t uncover evidence that the companies that funded the campaign had “direct knowledge of fraud”.

As such “the OAG has not found that they violated New York law”, the report states. However, the investigators said that “red flags were ignored by the campaign organisers and the way that they conducted their campaign – hiding the broadband industry’s involvement, relying on lead generators that used commercial incentives to lure people to comment, and paying dubious vendors for volume rather than quality – is troubling and raises important policy questions”.

For the tens of millions of American citizens who vociferously opposed the net neutrality legislation, the OAG’s report will make for painful reading. The industry’s lobbying campaign was a sham, but that the FCC took this evidence at face value suggests that its public consultation process was too.

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