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Broadband providers bankrolled fake net neutrality opposition, investigation finds

An investigation by the New York Attorney General found that some of the nation's largest broadband companies funded a secret campaign to generate opposition to net neutrality, resulting in millions of faked comments to the US government.

The Office of the Attorney General (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.

However, the OAG did not name the broadband companies involved in the situation.

Organized astroturfing

According to the investigation, the campaign was operated by a non-profit organization funded by the broadband industry called Broadband for America. That organization used three marketing firms – Fluent, Opt-Intelligence and React2Media – to drum up opposition to the FCC's net neutrality guidelines. However, those firms used prizes like gift cards and sweepstakes entries to lure consumers to their websites in order to obtain their personal information. Then, they used that information to fabricate consumer opposition to net neutrality and other government proceedings.

"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," wrote New York Attorney General Letitia James in a release.

The OAG announced the three marketing companies will adopt "comprehensive reforms in future advocacy campaigns" and will also pay more than $4.4 million in penalties.

Plausible deniability

According to an official in the New York AG office, the agency is not releasing the names of the broadband companies because it did not find evidence that the broadband companies that funded and organized the campaign had direct knowledge of fraud. Further, the official said the problem cannot be resolved with legal action. Instead, the agency is suggesting reforms including legislation that would "strengthen laws to deter the submission of deceptive and unauthorized comments to the government."

The official also said the agency is working with a number of law enforcement partners on the issue, and has only signed agreements with three of the marketing companies involved.

Net neutrality was a major topic of discussion under President Obama and the FCC, under his administration, passed guidelines in 2015 focused on net neutrality principles.

A smoking document

According to the New York AG's new report, the nation's broadband providers prepared to attack the regulations shortly after President Trump succeeded Obama.

"In mid-January 2017, several days before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president and set to install a new FCC chairman, a document was circulated among a small group of senior broadband industry executives laying out a plan to overturn the FCC's existing net neutrality regulations," according to the OAG's report.

"The document, obtained by the OAG in its investigation, proposed a campaign that would provide support for an anticipated 'FCC action to stop the current rule and initiate a new [rulemaking] proceeding.' The actions under consideration included financing a campaign to collect and submit a 'high-volume [of] comments' to the FCC. The proposed campaign would also urge Congress to pass broadband legislation that would be more permissive than the repealed FCC rules," according to the report.

The FCC, under Trump appointee Ajit Pai, voted 3-2 along party lines at the end of 2017 to repeal the Obama-era rules.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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