Investigators, Reporters Close In On The Origins Of Those Fake Net Neutrality Comments

from the fake-plastic-support dept

As several Attorneys General and the FBI investigate who was behind the fake net neutrality comments that plagued the FCC website during the late 2017 repeal, reporters like Jason Prechtel and Gizmodo's Dell Cameron continue to slowly and methodically connect the dots. Last month, Cameron obtained leaked investigation data linking many of the bogus comments to several Trumpland-linked astroturfing and policy operations like "Free Our Internet," a bogus consumer-rights group specifically built by ex-Trump campaign staffer Christie-Lee McNally.

And this week, both Prechtel and Cameron leaned on FOIA data to discover that another sizeable chunk of the bogus comments were allegedly driven by both CQ Roll Call, a DC-based news and policy organization, and Center for Individual Freedom (CFIF), a "dark money" influence group with historical ties to defending tobacco companies:

"Founded in 1998, CFIF is a reportedly a dark-money group whose early roots lie in defending Big Tobacco, but which supported the repeal of net neutrality more recently and has campaigned aggressively against state laws requiring political groups like itself to disclose the sources of its funding. Along with CQ, the group is among the 14 entities subpoenaed by the New York attorney general last fall, as first reported by former BuzzFeed reporter Kevin Collier in October.

As late as last February, CFIF President Jeffrey Mazzella praised the FCC’s rollback of the Title II classification of broadband service underlying net neutrality in the Daily Caller, labeling the policy an “unprecedented power grab by the Obama administration,” which, he claimed, upended “two decades of bipartisan consensus for light-touch regulation of the internet sector."

You might recall that many of these efforts during the net neutrality repeal involved hijacking the names of both dead and living people (like myself), and using them to post comments supporting the repeal during the FCC open comment period. Most of these folks (obviously in the case of deceased) had never even visited the FCC website, much less heard about net neutrality. In one instance, a bot was used to pluck names from a hacked database of some kind, posting bogus, supportive-but-fake comments, name by name, in perfect alphabetical order.

In short, several groups were created by DC policy shops to generate the illusion of public support for a net neutrality repeal poll after poll shows was strongly opposed by a bipartisan majority of Americans. Especially since repealing those rules opened the door to ISPs using their network power to erect additional anti-competitive barriers for video competitors, driving up costs for everybody in the internet ecosystem.

None of this stuff is new. Telecom and other industries have spent decades creating entirely bogus consumer groups to prop up bad policy. And when companies aren't busy having DC policy shops create fake groups, they can often be found co-opting existing groups; promising cash infusions in exchange for quid-pro-quo support for company policy positions. Countless government agency proceedings have been plagued by similar fake comment issues, suggesting this sort of stuff is a pretty common option on the menu of many K Street lobbying and policy shops.

The goal is always the same: create the illusion of broad support for tech policy that consumers and actual experts strongly oppose, usually with very good reason. While that itself isn't illegal (whether it should be is a good conversation to have if we ever want to fix the country's garbage lobbying rules), identity fraud clearly is.

Of course identifying the dubious constructs acting as intermediaries is one thing. Connecting those constructs to entrenched broadband providers like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast is something else entirely. Telecom operators historically leave layers upon layers of deniability between themselves and such groups, and aren't usually dumb enough to put much of this work in writing. As such, whether the NY AG, FBI, and other investigators are able to document a real money trail to the obvious beneficiaries of these shenanigans will be interesting to watch.

Regardless of the outcome, there are more than a few DC policy outfits that aren't sleeping quite as well as they were this time two years ago. They've been engaging in this sort of behavior for years, but the extreme unpopularity of Ajit Pai's assault on net neutrality likely brought significantly more light and attention to the sleazy practice than they've historically grown accustomed to.

Filed Under: dark money, fake comments, fcc, foia, lobbying, net neutrality, transparency
Companies: center for individual freedom, cfif, cq roll call

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  1. identicon
    Pixelation, 22 Feb 2019 @ 8:27am


    It seems like this would be a good time for the DOJ to test out the CFAA in court. If they were willing to hammer Swartz with it, perhaps this time they could use it to do some good.

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