Three digital marketing firms have agreed to pay $615,000 to resolve allegations that they submitted at least 2.4 million fake public comments to influence American internet policy.
New York Attorney General Letitia James announced last week the agreement with LCX, Lead ID, and Ifficient, each of which was found to have fabricated public comments submitted in 2017 to convince the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to repeal net neutrality.
Net neutrality refers to a policy requiring internet service providers to treat people’s internet traffic more or less equally, which some ISPs opposed because they would have preferred to act as gatekeepers in a pay-to-play regime. The neutrality rules were passed in 2015 at a time when it was feared large internet companies would eventually eradicate smaller rivals by bribing ISPs to prioritize their connections and downplay the competition.
in 2017 Ajit Pai, appointed chairman of the FCC by the Trump administration, successfully spearheaded an effort to tear up those rules and remake US net neutrality so they’d be more amenable to broadband giants. And there was a public comment period on initiative.
It was a massive sham. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) investigation [PDF] found that 18 million of 22 million comments submitted to the FCC were fake, both for and against net neutrality.
The broadband industry’s attempt in 2017 to have the FCC repeal the net neutrality rules accounted for more than 8.5 million fake comments at a cost of $4.2 million.
“The effort was intended to create the appearance of widespread grassroots opposition to existing net neutrality rules, which — as described in an internal campaign planning document — would help provide ‘cover’ for the FCC’s proposed repeal,” the report explained.
The report also stated an unidentified 19-year-old was responsible for more than 7.7 million of 9.3 million fake comments opposing the repeal of net neutrality. These were generated using software that fabricated identities. The origin of the other 1.6 million fake comments is unknown.
LCX, Lead ID, and Ifficient were said to have taken a different approach, one that allegedly involved reuse of old consumer data from different marketing or advocacy campaigns, purchased or obtained through misrepresentation. LCX is said to have obtained some of its data from “a large data breach file found on the internet.”
This was the second such agreement for the state of New York, which two years ago got a different set of digital marketing firms – Fluent, Opt-Intelligence, and React2Media – to pay $4.4 million to disgorge funds earned for distributing about 5.4 million fake public comments related to the FCC’s net neutrality process.
astroturfing – corporate messaging masquerading as grassroots public opinion.
“no federal laws or regulations exist that limit a public relations firm’s ability to engage in astroturfing.”