Dell Cameron and Jason Prechtel, Gizmodo:
In May 2017, dozens of Americans came forward with claims that their identities had been used, without their consent, in a campaign to inundate the Federal Communications Commission with public comments critical of the Obama-era policy. Some told reporters that they’d never heard of net neutrality. Twenty seven signed an open letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai demanding a response. A year on, each of their names and addresses are still displayed on the federal agency’s website, right above, as the letter puts it, “a political statement that we did not sign onto.”
What was most curious, however, is that each of these people had supposedly submitted the very same comment; a veritable word salad of telecom industry talking points. In particular, the comment was a rebuke of the Obama administration’s exercise of “unprecedented regulatory power” in pursuit of net neutrality, a policy which it accused of “smothering innovation, damaging the American economy, and obstructing job creation.”
Internal FCC logs reviewed by Gizmodo for the first time offer clues as to why the matching comments led investigators in October to the doorstep of CQ Roll Call, a company that, while running an august newsroom in the nation’s capital, is also in the business of helping lobbyists construct digital “grassroots” campaigns aimed at influencing policymakers, and specifically, those controlling the FCC’s rulemaking process.
There’s a lot in Cameron and Prechtel’s excellent investigation, but the payoff is worth it. Apparently, CQ verifies everything submitted through its API, but also emailed the FCC to ask if a rate of 250,000 submissions per day would be fine with them. Oh, and the millions of cut-and-paste comments just so happen to overlap with submissions from CQ’s API key.
It is equally astonishing how blatant this kind of arguably fraudulent astroturfing is, and how the clever use of FOIAs by hardworking journalists is able to expose it.