Up to 9.5 million net neutrality comments were made with stolen identities

The New York attorney general’s office is widening an investigation into fraudulent net neutrality comments, saying it estimates that up to 9.5 million comments were submitted using stolen identities.

NY AG Barbara Underwood “subpoenaed more than a dozen telecommunications trade groups, lobbying contractors, and Washington advocacy organizations on Tuesday, seeking to determine whether the groups submitted millions of fraudulent public comments to sway a critical federal decision on Internet regulation,” reported yesterday.

The NY AG last year said it found 2 million net neutrality comments filed in people’s names without their knowledge; some comments were submitted under the names of dead people.

That number more than quadrupled as the AG’s office continued its analysis of comments, based in part on a website the office set up to let people search the FCC comments for their names to determine if they’ve been impersonated.

“Underwood said in a statement that her office found up to 9.5 million comments that appear to have been filed using the names and addresses of real people who had no idea they were being cited in the comments,” wrote yesterday.

We asked the AG’s office for a list of all companies that it subpoenaed and a description of the records it is seeking, and we will update this story if we get a reply. The AG is seeking “records and communications,” the wrote.

Several of the subpoenaed firms were “contractors and subcontractors in the massive lobbying efforts that helped generate more than 20 million comments on the FCC decision to scale back Internet regulation,” the wrote.

“The New York investigation is one of the first official probes into lobbying firms that promise special interests they can deliver thousands, even millions of people to back their causes under consideration before the government,” the wrote. “The sector is sometimes called ‘AstroTurf lobbying’ for generating artificial grass-roots support.”

Fraud “distort[ed] public opinion”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” proceeding that led to the death of federal net neutrality rules attracted nearly 24 million public comments.

The millions of fraudulent comments and various letter-writing campaigns may have helped obscure the fact that public opinion was not divided on net neutrality—nearly everyone who wrote a unique comment to the FCC opposed the repeal of net neutrality rules, and polls showed consistent support for the rules from both Democrats and Republicans. Pai said before repealing the rules that he wasn’t concerned about the number of pro-net neutrality comments.

Underwood said in a statement this week that her office “will get to the bottom of what happened and hold accountable those responsible for using stolen identities to distort public opinion on net neutrality.”

A new study by Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society found that more than 800,000 of the comments were “semantic outliers, e.g. not part of a form letter campaign.”

“A manual analysis of 1,000 of these comments showed that 99.7 percent of the comments opposed the repeal,” the Stanford report said. Comments were submitted to the FCC in large numbers from both Democratic and Republican parts of the country, and the analysis showed that commenters generally understood the issue of net neutrality despite its somewhat arcane nature.

The study was written by Ryan Singel, a supporter of net neutrality rules. But his findings generally match what the broadband industry found in its own review of comments. The industry-funded study last year found that 98.5 percent of unique comments opposed the FCC’s repeal plan.

Anti- and pro-net neutrality groups subpoenaed

The AG’s subpoenas targeted both pro-net neutrality and anti-net neutrality groups. The wrote:

The investigation has traced comments submitted through bulk uploads and through an FCC service that allows advocates to solicit public comments on their own websites and then transmit them to the agency. Investigators have identified four buckets of apparently fraudulent comments, each of which appears to have been associated with a particular network of advocacy organizations, trade groups, and consultants, including at least some on both sides of the debate.

The FCC has resisted New York’s attempt to investigate the comment fraud, and it denied various public records requests related to the net neutrality proceeding. Last month, sued the FCC over the agency’s year-long refusal to release records that the believes might shed light on Russian interference in the net neutrality repeal proceeding.

Among others, the AG subpoenaed Broadband for America, an industry group that opposed the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Broadband for America was supported by AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Cox, and major broadband lobby groups.

The wrote that the AG also subpoenaed Century Strategies, “a political consultancy founded by Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition,” and Media Bridge, “a conservative messaging firm whose website boasts of helping to place hundreds of thousands of comments on net neutrality during Mr. Obama’s presidency on behalf of one client.” That Media Bridge client was anti-net neutrality group American Commitment.

Subpoenas also went to the anti-net neutrality Center for Individual Freedom and an online advertising firm called LCX Digital, according to the .

The Center for Individual Freedom said last year that it wasn’t filing comments under people’s names without their knowledge. The group ran a comment campaign that decried “The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the Internet.”

Century Strategies defended its advocacy work on behalf of clients who remain unnamed, telling the that it “directed our partners and vendors to follow above-industry standards and protections, including requiring individuals to provide name, address, email, and phone number to verify who they are.”

The AG’s office also subpoenaed pro-net neutrality groups including Free Press and Fight for the Future. Free Press told the that it is “responding to their requests and welcome[s] this inquiry into the FCC’s net neutrality comment process.” Free Press and Fight for the Future have both repeatedly criticized the FCC for not stopping comment fraud.

The FCC in July 2018 announced a plan to overhaul the comment system to deter fraud and abuse, more than six months after the vote to eliminate net neutrality rules.

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