New York AG fines companies that spammed FCC with fake anti-net neutrality comments

The astroturfers used millions of people's identities without permission.

REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

New York State is taking companies to task for flooding the FCC with bogus comments supporting the repeal of net neutrality. Attorney General Letitia James has obtained a total $615,000 from lead generating firms Ifficient, LCX and Lead ID for providing millions of fake comments in an attempt to skew the FCC's 2017 proceedings.

The broadband industry allegedly asked the trio to attract anti-neutrality input through ads and giveaways, but they instead manufactured fraudulent comments using real identities without permission. LCX and Lead ID directly faked responses for 1.5 million people, James says, while Ifficient served as a go-between that gathered 840,000 false comments from other lead generators. Several of the companies involved in the astroturfing (that is, fake grassroots) campaign had been involved in other attempts to influence regulators and politicians.

LCX and principals will pay $400,000 to New York and $100,000 to the San Diego District Attorney's Office. Lead ID and its principal will pay $30,000 to New York, while Ifficiient will pay $63,750 to New York and $21,250 to Colorado. This is the second batch of agreements New York has secured with companies sending fake comments to the FCC.

The fines come after a 2021 Attorney General report that found over 18 million of the 22 million comments on the net neutrality repeal were fake. While there were signs of trouble at the time, the FCC under then-Chairman Ajit Pai fought attempts to investigate and address the spam. Pai had long been an outspoken opponent of net neutrality and generally sided with telecoms on key issues.

The penalties are relatively tiny, and they won't undo the 2017 decision. Legislators haven't fared much better. A Senate bill that would have restored net neutrality hasn't gone anywhere, and California's neutrality law doesn't do much to help users in other states. The Attorney General's effort is more of a warning to would-be violators: don't expect to emerge completely unscathed.