The FCC should also move immediately to restore net neutrality
The New York Attorney General’s office has announced that after a multi-year investigation they now have proof that the nation’s largest broadband companies funded a massive campaign of fraud that flooded the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with fake comments using stolen names and addresses in an attempt to influence the agency’s net neutrality proceeding. Broadband for America and its Big Telecom members are also implicated in funding more than 500,000 fake emails to Congress that attempted to create the appearance of public support for the repeal of net neutrality.
The investigation began after Fight for the Future first uncovered the slew of suspicious-looking comments back in 2017. We published a blog post detailing our findings that led to multiple media investigations, and built Comcastroturf.com, a tool that allowed Internet users to check whether their personal information had been stolen and used to submit a fake comment to the FCC opposing net neutrality. Comcast sent us a cease and desist notice in an attempt to censor the site. We fought it and won.
We organized a letter to Ajit Pai from dozens of people who had had their names and addresses stolen and used to submit fraudulent comments that they did not agree with, and a petition from more than 15,000 people calling on the FCC to investigate the fraud. One of our campaigners even rode her bike around the Tampa area knocking on doors of people we suspected may have been impersonated. We located and communicated with multiple people who were outraged to find that their deceased family members names and addresses had been used to submit fake comments. We called on Congress to investigate, leading to multiple bipartisan letters, and sparking a Government Accountability Office review.
Fight for the Future issued the following statement, which can be attributed to director Evan Greer (she/her), who also posted a lengthy twitter thread on the issue:
As the first organization to uncover these fraudulent comments and call for them to be investigated, we are not at all surprised to learn that this criminal activity was funded by the very same Big Cable companies that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying against and spreading lies about net neutrality. No wonder Comcast was so worried about the Comcastroturf.com tool we built to help expose this fraud that they sent us a cease and desist notice about it.
The first thing that should happen is for the FCC to immediately reverse the fraudulent and unpopular repeal of net neutrality, given that we now know the process was irrefutably tainted by a corporate funded fraud campaign. But the executives of the companies who funded this illegal influence campaign should be facing criminal charges. The New York Attorney General found that telecom higher-ups had multiple "red flags" that the improbable flood of comments they were generating at an implausibly low cost were fraudulent—including news coverage, objections from one of their own vendors, and complaints from the victims themselves—and yet they continued to fund these operations. According to the report, one of the executives involved was himself a former FCC commissioner.
And fraudulent comments were only the tip of the iceberg: given today’s reporting, it certainly seems like the most likely source of funding for the "Dark Basin" cyberattack by a hacker-for-hire firm in India*—which targeted our organization and other net neutrality advocates with a sustained and sophisticated phishing campaign—is the same constellation of unprincipled lobbyists and unsupervised contractors. We call for a full investigation into whether they were hired or funded by Broadband for America or an individual telecom company.
To not hold these corporations, executives, and former high-ranking public officials accountable for this blatant attack on the democratic process would be an outrage. It would be a green light for the rich and powerful to fund criminal activity in order to achieve their political goals against the will of the people. We believe the people who committed this crime, and those who funded it, should face criminal charges. This is white collar crime in its most dangerous form, because it affects the functioning of democracy itself. If our laws are not sufficient, Congress should strengthen them. And in the meantime, these executives should be fired, and lawmakers should investigate whether Ajit Pai or any other public officials had knowledge of their crimes.
Net neutrality is one of the most popular pieces of public policy of the last century. If there’s one thing everyone can agree on it’s that we don’t want our cable and phone companies controlling what we can see and do on the Internet, or screwing us over more than they already do. It’s no wonder Big Telecom had to resort to funding criminal activity to create phony opposition. Fortunately, it seems their money will have been wasted. We’re going to restore net neutrality, and they’re going to lose.