The parent companies of NBC, MSNBC and CNN funded a fraudulent campaign to show support that wasn’t there for the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrally, according to New York Attorney General Letitia James.
The topic of whether online service providers would be compelled to treat all internet users equally was a hot-button issue in 2017, when the Trump administration’s FCC eventually repealed rules from the Obama administration that heavily regulated the internet.
In a 39-page report released on Thursday, James exposed a broadband industry campaign to influence the FCC’s decision on net neutrality.
James said the FCC was hit with 22 million comments about the issue — and almost 18 million of them were not from real people. She also said that four out of 10 of them came from a campaign that has been linked back to internet providers.
In the report, in which James vowed “significant consequences” for those involved, the New York attorney general laid out the state’s case.
“On June 19, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received a comment from Kenneth Langsam of Nassau, New York. Mr. Langsam had written to express support for the proposed repeal of regulations that require internet service providers to treat all internet communications equally. Mr. Langsam ‘urge[d]’ the agency to eliminate these anti-discrimination protections, often referred to as net neutrality rules,” the report said.
“However, there was one problem: Mr. Langsam had died seven years earlier. The comment was fabricated and his identity stolen,” the report continued.
James said the broadband industry spent $4.2 million provided by Broadband for America on a campaign to sway the FCC.
According to the attorney general, 8.5 million online accounts were fake, while millions of comments left to the FCC came from a single California student.
James said that fake comments “corrupt the democratic process,” adding that the internet service providers named “cause real harm, enabling monied interests and fraudsters to sway agency rules — undermining public confidence in democratic institutions and robbing citizens of their voice.”
“[F]ake comments twist the regulatory process by obscuring the popularity of a policy,” the report said. “Although rulemaking is not a vote decided based on whichever policy receives the most comments in support, public support can influence the regulations that agencies issue.
“Indeed, as described below, members of the broadband industry (including a former chairman of the FCC) believed public comments to be so important that their companies spent millions of dollars generating more than 8.5 million comments to, as they put it, provide ‘cover’ to FCC Chairman [Ajit] Pai.”
James laid out the alleged scheme in a thread she posted on Twitter.
The broadband industry hired marketing companies that co-opted and created identities and filed nearly 18 million fake comments with the FCC and sent over half a million fake letters to Congress in support of the repeal.
This practice was also used to influence other policies.
— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) May 6, 2021
Today, we stopped three of these marketing companies from continuing their illegal behavior and recommended reforms to stop this type of fraud in the future.
We will continue to shine a light on abuses and disinformation that drown out the voices of the American people.
— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) May 6, 2021
“After a multi-year investigation, we found the nation’s largest broadband companies funded a secret campaign to influence the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules — resulting in millions of fake public comments impersonating Americans,” she wrote. “The broadband industry hired marketing companies that co-opted and created identities and filed nearly 18 million fake comments with the FCC and sent over half a million fake letters to Congress in support of the repeal.”
“This practice was also used to influence other policies,” James added. “These illegal schemes are unacceptable. Today, we stopped three of these marketing companies from continuing their illegal behavior and recommended reforms to stop this type of fraud in the future. We will continue to shine a light on abuses and disinformation that drown out the voices of the American people.”
Her report concluded that those behind the campaign should be held “accountable,” while regulatory agencies “should impose consequences for fake submissions.”
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