US broadband industry accused of ‘bogus’ net neutrality comments

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The broadband industry funded a campaign in 2017 that generated millions of false comments to create the impression of popular opposition to net neutrality rules as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission United was considering repealing the policy, the New York state attorney general said Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen at Federal Communications Commission headquarters in Washington, DC, US August 29, 2020. REUTERS / Andrew Kelly

Democrat Attorney General Letitia James said her office struck deals with three companies involved in the program – Fluent Inc, Opt-Intelligence Inc and React2Media Inc – imposing fines of $ 4.4 million and requiring them to adopt comprehensive reforms in future advocacy campaigns.

His office has identified companies as the primary producers responsible for millions of bogus comments submitted under the FCC’s net neutrality process. Federal agencies often seek public comment on key policy issues before taking action.

The New York investigation showed that players in the broadband industry spent $ 4.2 million to generate and submit more than 8.5 million fake comments to the FCC “to create the appearance of” widespread popular opposition to the existing rules of net neutrality ”.

The investigation found that nearly 18 million of the more than 22 million public comments the FCC received for both for and against net neutrality were false.

New York-based Fluent agreed to pay $ 3.7 million, according to the attorney general’s office. He said Fluent has provided the broadband industry with more than 5 million digital signatures for net neutrality commentary.

Fluent said in a statement that the regulation covered “legacy practices before the end of 2018.”

The company added that the regulation “brings clarity and sets a new standard in the policy advocacy space” and said that, as it has already made most of the required changes, it “will have little impact on the policy. how Fluent serves our customers. “

Opt-Intelligence and React2Media did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The three companies have also worked on more than 100 other unrelated campaigns to influence regulatory agencies and public officials and have generated false comments for other regulatory proceedings, the investigation found.

James said investigations of other fraudsters are ongoing.

The FCC, led by former Democratic President Barack Obama, passed historic net neutrality rules in 2015 that prohibited Internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic or offering paid express lanes. The rules, opposed by the broadband industry, were overturned by the FCC under President Donald Trump in December 2017.

Supporters of net neutrality rules have argued that the protections ensure a free and open Internet. Broadband and telecommunications trading groups have argued that the rules would discourage investment.

Acting FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel, Democrat, voted against the repeal and said the report “demonstrates how the file informing the FCC’s net neutrality repeal has been inundated with fraud … We must learn from these lessons and improve ourselves because the public deserves a fair opportunity to tell Washington what they think about policies that affect their lives. “

The New York investigation also found that the FCC received an additional 9.3 million false comments supporting Net Neutrality using fictitious identities. Most of those comments were submitted by a 19-year-old student using automated software, he found.

In mid-January 2017, several days before Trump’s inauguration, a document was released among a small group of senior broadband industry leaders “outlining a plan to overturn existing FCC neutrality regulations. from the net, ”according to James’ office.

The document proposed a campaign to support the FCC’s expected repeal of net neutrality, he said.

The campaign was carried out through a broadband industry-funded nonprofit called Broadband for America, made up of senior officials from broadband companies and commercial groups, he said. Documents cited in the inquiry indicated that public comments would give then Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai “the bulk and intellectual coverage” of the repeal.

Pai declined to comment.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Edited by Will Dunham, Chizu Nomiyama and Diane Craft



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