Remember those millions of fake net neutrality comments? Fallout continues

Trio of digital marketing firms cough up $600K to make astroturfing brouhaha just go away

Three digital marketing firms have agreed to pay $615,000 to resolve allegations that they submitted at least 2.4 million fake public comments to influence American internet policy.

New York Attorney General Letitia James announced last week the agreement with LCX, Lead ID, and Ifficient, each of which was found to have fabricated public comments submitted in 2017 to convince the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to repeal net neutrality.

Net neutrality refers to a policy requiring internet service providers to treat people's internet traffic more or less equally, which some ISPs opposed because they would have preferred to act as gatekeepers in a pay-to-play regime. The neutrality rules were passed in 2015 at a time when it was feared large internet companies would eventually eradicate smaller rivals by bribing ISPs to prioritize their connections and downplay the competition.

Though some internet and content providers had cut deals to streamline the delivery of media – such as Netflix placing its video-caching boxes in ISP infrastructure – the pro-neutrality camp's concerns about favored traffic did not exactly become reality, but that's perhaps due to the furor over it all, the passing of the open-internet rules during the Obama era, and other reasons, and a topic for another story entirely.

In any case, in 2017 Ajit Pai, appointed chairman of the FCC by the Trump administration, successfully spearheaded an effort to tear up those rules and remake US net neutrality so they'd be more amenable to broadband giants. And there was a public comment period on initiative.

It was a massive sham. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) investigation [PDF] found that 18 million of 22 million comments submitted to the FCC were fake, both for and against net neutrality.

The broadband industry's attempt in 2017 to have the FCC repeal the net neutrality rules accounted for more than 8.5 million fake comments at a cost of $4.2 million.

"The effort was intended to create the appearance of widespread grassroots opposition to existing net neutrality rules, which — as described in an internal campaign planning document — would help provide 'cover' for the FCC’s proposed repeal," the report explained.

The report also stated an unidentified 19-year-old was responsible for more than 7.7 million of 9.3 million fake comments opposing the repeal of net neutrality. These were generated using software that fabricated identities. The origin of the other 1.6 million fake comments is unknown.

LCX, Lead ID, and Ifficient were said to have taken a different approach, one that allegedly involved reuse of old consumer data from different marketing or advocacy campaigns, purchased or obtained through misrepresentation. LCX is said to have obtained some of its data from "a large data breach file found on the internet."

"Public comment opportunities are a chance for Americans to give their input on important government policies, and these companies abused that for their own selfish purposes,” said New York Attorney General James in a statement. “No one should have their identity co-opted by manipulative companies and used to falsely promote a private agenda."

No one should have their identity co-opted by manipulative companies and used to falsely promote a private agenda

This was the second such agreement for the state of New York, which two years ago got a different set of digital marketing firms – Fluent, Opt-Intelligence, and React2Media – to pay $4.4 million to disgorge funds earned for distributing about 5.4 million fake public comments related to the FCC's net neutrality process.

Fluent, Opt-Intelligence, and React2Media are also said to have worked on unrelated advocacy campaigns directed at other US government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Again, the messages submitted to these agencies were fake, according to the OAG report.

That report made three recommendations: that advocacy groups should vet their lead generation vendors; that government agencies should hold advocacy groups and their vendors accountable for submitted comments; and that lawmakers should strengthen laws in order to deter efforts to manipulate public perception and the political process through deception.

Turf wars

A 2019 article in the Iowa Law Review, "Ripping Up the Astroturf: Regulating Deceptive Corporate Advertising Methods," argues that under current US law, neither consumers nor investors can obtain the information they need to make informed decisions when the source of that information can be hidden by astroturfing – corporate messaging masquerading as grassroots public opinion.

"Astroturfing is problematic for a number of reasons, and regulation is difficult because the practice touches on many different aspects of the law," the article stated. "Consumers and investors are being manipulated and deceived by groups who are shielded from accountability through their use of front groups and public relations firms. The public has little recourse against this kind of deception under the current regulatory regime."

As the paper explained, when it comes to companies paying to covertly influence public messaging, "no federal laws or regulations exist that limit a public relations firm’s ability to engage in astroturfing."

Author Matthew Scott argued that while state law enforcement officials, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission have tools to push back against clear abuse – deception and fraud – the public would benefit from stronger legal tools.

Specifically, the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practice Act should be revised to classify astroturfing as deceptive; mandatory disclosures to shareholders should include information about socially responsible investing; and corporations and nonprofits should be required to disclose material ties to public relations firms. ®

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