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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A New York Attorney General investigation Thursday found that 18 million of the 22 million comments submitted to the FCC during the 2017 rollback of federal net neutrality rules were fake, with millions of fraudulent comments funded by a broadband industry campaign.

Why it matters: Federal agencies are required to take public comments into account while developing regulations, but gaming the system with fake comments distorts public opinion and compromises the process' integrity.

Driving the news: Attorney General Letitia James outlined a "secret campaign" by an industry trade group and three companies to influence the Federal Communications Commission's repeal of the net neutrality rules in 2017.

  • According to her report, Broadband for America — a coalition of major internet service providers and trade groups — paid $4.2 million to generate and submit 8.5 million fake comments.
  • BFA hired six companies, known as lead generators, that were supposed to solicit comments by using prizes like gift cards. Instead, the AG's office found, the lead generators fabricated responses using real consumer names without their consent.
  • The AG's office notes that it has not found evidence that the broadband companies involved in the campaign"had direct knowledge of fraud."

Yes, but: There was fraud on both sides. The office said a 19-year-old college student submitted 7.7 million comments using fake names in support of the net neutrality rules using automated software.

  • Another 1.6 million comments using fake names were submitted in support of net neutrality, but the AG office said it hasn't found the source of those comments.

The big picture: Fake comments are not just a problem at the FCC. High-profile regulatory changes have become breeding grounds for comment wars, as advocacy and industry groups try to out-comment each other to show consumers are on their side.

  • The AG's office found some of the lead generators involved in the broadband campaign also submitted more than a million comments and messages in other federal agency rulemakings and petitions to federal and state officials.
  • Three lead generators — Fluent, React2Media and Opt-Intelligence — agreed to a $4.4 million settlement with the AG's office as well as behavioral changes.

What's next: The report also recommends policy changes to deter fraudulent comments in future rulemakings:

  • Agencies should adopt technical safeguards to protect against unauthorized, automated bulk submissions and hold advocacy groups and vendors accountable for comments submitted on behalf of individuals.
  • Advocacy groups should ensure they have obtained consent from consumers before submitting comments on their behalf.
  • Lawmakers should strengthen laws to deter the submission of deceptive comments.

What they're saying: Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairwoman of the FCC, said the fake comments were troubling at the time of the FCC's repeal because it was clear something was wrong.

  • "We have to learn from these lessons and improve because the public deserves an open and fair opportunity to tell Washington what they think about the policies that affect their lives," Rosenworcel said in a statement.

Go deeper

Aug 10, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Federal judge questions $1.5M Capitol riot restitution cap

Beryl Howell, chief U.S. District judge for the District of Columbia, in 2018. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

A federal judge asked prosecutors Monday to explain why restitution in Capitol riot cases was limited to $1.5 million for repairs to the building when the total cost to taxpayers was $500 million, per Politico.

Of note: D.C. Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell's comments come about two weeks after she questioned whether it's appropriate for prosecutors to offer defendants misdemeanor plea deals in cases that saw insurrectionists "terrorizing members of Congress."

Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Starbucks has dropped plans to require that U.S. workers get the COVID vaccine or submit to weekly testing, the company announced Tuesday in a memo to employees.

Why it matters: The company's decision comes in response to the Supreme Court's ruling last week to block the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

3 hours ago - World

Netanyahu plea talks enter crunch time

Netanyahu (right) meets with his lawyer ahead of a court hearing last February. Photo: Reuven Casto/Pool/AFP via Getty

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's opposition leader and former prime minister, is negotiating a possible plea deal over the corruption charges against him, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit appears to be toughening his terms.

Why it matters: Mandelblit leaves office on Jan. 31. Negotiations could continue beyond that point, but the next attorney general may be less interested in quickly reaching a deal.