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Telecom Lobby Firms Subpoenaed to Lift 'Fog of Fraud and Spam' Surrounding FCC's Net Neutrality Comments

"My 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."

The Federal Communication Commission's December decision to roll back net neutrality rules provoked widespread protests. (Photo: Tim Carter/Flickr/cc)

New York law enforcement officials this week issued subpoenas to more than a dozen pro-telecom industry groups as part of an investigation into millions of allegedly fraudulent public comments submitted to the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) website last year as the agency was preparing to repeal net neutrality protections.

"With the fog of fraud and spam lifted from the comment corpus, lawmakers and their staff, journalists, interested citizens, and policymakers can...better understand what Americans actually said about the repeal of net neutrality protection." —Ryan Singel, Stanford University

A vast majority of the 22 million comments are thought to have been fake, according to the office of New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, who issued the subpoenas.

"The FCC's public comment process was corrupted by millions of fake comments," Ms. Underwood said in a statement Tuesday. "The law protects New Yorkers from deception and the misuse of their identities. My 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."

The groups accused of orchestrating a deluge of anti-net neutrality comments include Broadband for America, Century Strategies, and "conservative messaging firm" Media Bridge—which openly wrote in a press release that one of its clients had submitted nearly 800,000 comments to the FCC's website.

Open internet defenders Free Press and Fight for the Future have also been subpoenaed, according to the Wall Street Journal—but both support the attorney general's probe.

"We are responding to their requests and welcome this inquiry," Free Press spokesman Tim Karr told the Journal.

Millions of the comments submitted to the FCC's website followed a verbatim script expressing support for the telecom industry, or used temporary or duplicate email addresses, according to the New York Times.

In addition to the fraudulent comments that flooded the system, Underwood is investigating whether the group or groups responsible for the fake responses also committed mass identity theft, as millions of real Americans' names were assigned to the comments.

Stanford University conducted a study this month finding that only about 800,000 of the comments were unique—meaning not generated by a form or automated script—and out of those, 99.7 percent urged the FCC to uphold net neutrality protections.

"With the fog of fraud and spam lifted from the comment corpus, lawmakers and their staff, journalists, interested citizens, and policymakers can use these reports to better understand what Americans actually said about the repeal of net neutrality protections and why 800,000 Americans went further than just signing a petition for a redress of grievances by actually putting their concerns in their own words," wrote Stanford researcher Ryan Singel on Monday.

Net neutrality protections stop internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast from blocking or throttling certain online content and charging fees for internet companies to use "fast lanes"—enabling wealthy companies to ensure that they receive traffic while independent journalists, activists, and other groups are left struggling to find an audience.

Ahead of the FCC's 3-2 vote last year repealing net neutrality, 83 percent of Americans expressed support for the rules.

"When you sift through all the noise, fake comments, bots, and BS you always find the truth: no one wants their cable company to charge more fees and control what they see and do on the internet," Fight for the Future Deputy Director Evan Greer said Tuesday.

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