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. icon
    cattress (profile), 22 Feb 2019 @ 11:46pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    No, that's not the core of libertarianism. Individual freedom means the right to live your life as you see fit so long as it does not infringe on or aggress upon anyone else. This means some people will do things that other people disagree with, like smoking, taking drugs, or soliciting a prostitute. Lots of people complain about "dark money", because they always associate the desire to remain anonymous with sinister motives. Should the NAACP have to disclose their donor rolls, even when they first formed? How about Planned Parenthood, do you think people would still donate if their very conservative community would find out, or someone with violent intentions could target them? Do you think the police should be able to see who supports BLM, NORML, or the Innocence Project? Wanting to out a big corporate donor isn't worth everyone else's privacy. Libertarians tend to be against Net Neutrality along with Republican politicians because they don't understand the issue and our default position is against government control. The thing is, the Telecom and cable industries are not bastions of capitalism; it's cronyism top to bottom that's mislabeled as capitalism. Neither industry was ever a free market, and most places have no competing ISP. If consumers can't take their business elsewhere, and it's a necessary service, as in a utility, then it's not anti-freedom to have thoughtful regulation and enforcement mechanism. Regulations aren't the answer to everything, and often they are just market manipulation to hinder the competition. Libertarians don't hold any significant political power, so go attack the Democrats and Republicans that are controlled by big Pharma, oil and fossil fuels companies, Wall Street, police unions, and the rich and powerful you accuse us of representing. In fact, take a minute to consider how the Dems and reps do everything they can to keep third parties like us, who advocate for maximum individual liberty that appeals to members of both parties, completely shut out of the electoral process.


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