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Telcos crammed 8.5m fake comments against net neutrality into FCC's inbox

While some teen generated 7.7m bogus pro-NN notes to US broadband regulator

Broadband companies in 2017 launched an $8.2m campaign to repeal America's net neutrality rules that spent $4.2m to sway policymakers with millions of fake comments. But only their hired guns are being held accountable.

Net neutrality, the proposition that broadband service providers should handle internet traffic without bias, has been bitterly opposed by broadband service providers because utility pricing tends to be less profitable than the premium charges gatekeepers can impose. Supporters of net neutrality argue that broadband companies should not be able to distort the competitive market to favor firms that pay them fees.

After the Trump administration appointed Ajit Pai to be chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in 2017, Pai set about to repeal net neutrality policies and the broadband industry proved keen to see that happen. His repeal went through but has been complicated by a 2019 appeals court decision that affirms the ability of states to implement their own net neutrality rules, which three states have passed into law and others have done through Executive Orders or have proposed new laws.

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Thursday issued a report [PDF] on her office's (OAG) multi-year investigation of the broadband industry's net neutrality repeal lobbying effort. It describes, among other things, the OAG's settlement with three lead generation companies – Fluent, Inc., React2Media, and Opt-Intelligence. These firms have been held responsible for a substantial portion of the fake comment deluge, which was directed at the FCC and at lawmakers.

"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."

Fleabite fines, but telcos in the clear

The three firms must pay $3.7m, $550,000, and $150,000 respectively, for their duplicity and are required in future marketing efforts to present consumers with disclosures, to avoid submitting consumers' messages to the government without informed consent, to monitor subcontractors to make sure they behave, and to disclose their role in any future campaigns to the government and public.

These lead generation companies used various deceptive techniques to capture people's personal information and entice them to submit it, like websites offering gift cards and other incentives. The websites were interleaved with forms to submit comments to the FCC in a way that was generally done without consent.

The broadband companies that, through their lobbying group, Broadband for America, hired these firms, however, are not being penalized. "The OAG has not found evidence, however, that the broadband companies that funded and organized these lead generators had direct knowledge of fraud," the report says.

Nonetheless, the report says the conduct of the broadband companies and their lobbying firm is troubling. It notes that the broadband companies' campaign organizers "ignored several significant red flags as to the authenticity of the comments," and it calls out the lack of oversight of these lead generation companies.

The OAG report says that the broadband industry could not obtain grassroots support for the net neutrality repeal because the public was largely against it. So the telecom companies hired firms that ended up submitting 8.5 million fake comments to the FCC opposing net neutrality.

Trouble on both sides

The investigation also found that 9.3 million fake comments were submitted in favor of net neutrality, 7.7 million of them created by a 19-year-old college student who used software to generate fictitious names and addresses. The OAG spotted another 1.6 million pro-net neutrality comments using fake identities but has not determined the source.

Between the time the FCC rulemaking proposal was unveiled in April 2017 and the close of the public comment period later that year, 22 million comments voicing an opinion about net neutrality were received by the FCC and 18 million of them were fake, according to the OAG report.

The OAG report argues that fake comments corrupt the democratic process by misrepresenting the popularity of initiatives, eroding public confidence in democratic institutions, and depriving people of their voice and identity.

The report argues that various reforms are needed to prevent such anti-democratic meddling. The recommendations include: rules that ensure advocacy groups obtain consent from individuals involved in their lobbying campaigns; making organizations hold their vendors accountable; strengthening laws on impersonation and deception; and implementing safeguards like CAPTCHAs against automated submissions.

There is, however, more than a bit of wide-eyed optimism in the notion that online consent can be better obtained when the internet has normalized accepting terms of use agreements that few people actually read or understand and when dark pattern manipulation remains rampant.

Holding companies accountable for the actions of their vendors has a nice ring to it, but it's hard to imagine tech companies embracing laws that might see executives being jailed because, say, a supplier employed slave labor. Much of the industry is predicated on shifting cost and responsibility to third-parties.

Many companies remain willfully ignorant of the actions of their contractors and suppliers and wouldn't have it any other way. Or they lobby for laws that classify workers as their contractors rather than employees because their business model doesn't include the cost of accountability.

Laws limiting impersonation and deception sound promising though they'd run up against an internet culture that has already made clear its opposition to linking online identities to government identity documentation.

And given that Facebook, a company with few financial constraints, removed more than 1.3 billion fake accounts in the last quarter of 2020, it may be naive to think that presenting a few pictures of traffic lights and crosswalks will be Turing-test enough to trip up democracy-subverting bots. ®

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