In New York, a recent release by the Attorney General’s office reported the results of an investigation into efforts by “Big Telecom” to defeat Net Neutrality. It seems that in 2017, major U.S. telecom companies pumped “millions of dollars into a secret campaign” to flood the FCC with millions of fake comments supporting the agency’s repeal of net neutrality protections.
The product of a multi-year investigation, the new report (pdf) details an industry-backed effort to create the appearance of “widespread grassroots support” for then-FCC chair Ajit Pai’s broadly unpopular repeal of net neutrality rules.
I have written before about Ajit Pai who was put in charge of the FCC by the Trump Administration in furtherance of that administration’s intent to make online life easier–and more lucrative– for monied interests. Apparently, simply installing a tool at the FCC wasn’t seen as sufficient; so the industry’s “big guys” decided to give Pai’s efforts a boost.
“In 2017, the nation’s largest broadband companies funded a secret campaign to generate millions of comments to the FCC. Many of these comments provided ‘cover’ for the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules,” the investigation found. “To help generate these comments, the broadband industry engaged commercial lead generators that used prizes—like gift cards and sweepstakes entries—to lure consumers to their websites and join the campaign.”
“However, nearly every lead generator that was hired to enroll consumers in the campaign, instead, simply fabricated consumers’ responses,” the report states, noting that 8.5 million fake comments in favor of net neutrality repeal were generated by the effort.
New York AG Letitia James issued a statement that identified the danger of such campaigns: the fabrication of responses in order to influence public policies drowns out actual responses from the American people, distorting public opinion and defeating passage of laws and regulations that should be responsive to that opinion.
“Today, we are taking action to root out this fraud and the impersonation that has been corrupting the process for far too long,” James continued. “From net neutrality rules to laws affecting criminal justice reform, healthcare, and more, these fake comments have simply been generated to influence too many government policies, which is why we are cracking down on this illegal and deceptive behavior.”
James also announced that the AG’s office had negotiated settlements with three of the companies that had generated millions of false comments on behalf of Big Telecom—Fluent, Inc, Opt-Intelligence, Inc., and React2Media, Inc. Those companies will pay more than $4.4 million in penalties and disgorgement; significantly, they will also be required to implement “comprehensive reforms in future advocacy campaigns.”
Supporters of Net Neutrality had suspected something of this sort, and this investigation confirmed those suspicions. Unfortunately, it confirmed something even more troubling–the extent to which presumably reputable American business interests engage in (or at the very least, wink at) corrupt behaviors.
I still remember how shocked I was when my middle son, who was then traveling through India, told me about the frustration of an Indian friend. The friend ran an orphanage and wanted to increase its capacity to care for abandoned children. In order to get a permit for the expansion, he was expected to pay a fairly substantial bribe to the official responsible for issuing such permits. My son said that such expectations were widespread, not particularly secretive, and just as applicable to “do-gooders” as to more profitable enterprises.
We Americans used to pride ourselves on the absence of such expectations in our dealings with government officials, petty and not-so petty.
When societies become desensitized to corrupt behavior, when “winning” and/or profiting are the only metrics that matter, it’s a short distance to the normalization of outright bribery and other highly unethical practices.
The corruption that attended the fight over Net Neutrality is so troubling because it may well be a “canary in the coal mine”– a very worrisome omen.