May 6 (UPI) -- Millions of fake comments and a secret campaign undermined the Federal Communications Commission's 2017 net neutrality repeal, a report confirmed Thursday.
The New York attorney general's report based on a multiyear investigation found nearly 18 million of the more than 22 million comments the FCC received during its 2017 proceeding to repeal the agency's net neutrality rules were fake comments.
The FCC voted 3-2 in December 2017 to repeal the Obama-era rules to prevent broadband companies from slowing down or blocking any sites or apps and charging more to access certain sites. The next month the attorneys general of more than 20 states led by then-N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a petition to block the FCC's repeal of the rules, saying the rollback was illegal.
"An open Internet -- and the free exchange of ideas it allows -- is critical to our democratic process," Schneiderman said at the time.
The report released Thursday by now Attorney General Letitia James found that some of the country's largest broadband companies funded a secret campaign to generate millions of comments in the 2017 net neutrality proceeding to provide "cover" for the FCC's repeal of net neutrality rules.
Main funders of the campaign included an industry trade group and three companies, with a combined market value of approximately half a trillion dollars. The campaign created an appearance of widespread grassroots opposition to net neutrality rules, which did not exist in reality.
Polls showed overwhelming public support for keeping the net neutrality rules in place, so the industry hired companies "known as lead generators" that would "generate comments for a fee," the report said.
"This practice -- disguising an orchestrated, paid campaign as a grassroots effort to create a false appearance of genuine, unpaid public support -- is often referred to as astroturfing," the report noted.
The secret campaign spent $4.2 million generating and submitting over 8.5 million fake comments to the FCC, according to the report. The campaign also sent over a half a million fake letters to Congress.
The FCC also received over 9 million fake comments supporting net neutrality from a 19-year-old college student who used automated software to generate fictitious identities.
"Americans voices are being drowned out by masses of fake comments and messages being submitted to the government to sway decision-making," James said in a statement. "Instead of actually looking for real responses from the American people, marketing companies are luring vulnerable individuals to their websites with freebies, co-opting their identities, and fabricating responses that giant corporations are then using to influence the policies and laws that govern our lives."
Three of the lead generators responsible for fake comments have already entered into settlements with the attorney general's office, including Fluent, React2Media, and Opt-Intelligence, according to a statement. Fluent was responsible for approximately 4.8 million fraudulent comments, React2Media, approximately 329,000, nearly all of which were fraudulent, and Opt-Intelligence was responsible for more than 250,000 fraudulent comments.
The three companies were required to adopt comprehensive reforms to advocacy campaigns and pay more than $4.4 million in "penalties and disgorgement," according to James' statement.
The Office of the Attorney General did not find evidence that the broadband companies that funded the lead generators had direct knowledge of the fraud, but did find that the nonprofit organization funded through the broadband industry called Broadband for America ignored "red flags."
Among them, an individual wrote in a message to the BFA's lobbying firm, she had "never even heard of net neutrality," and demanded to know "who was behind the use of her identity without her knowledge," the report said.