Political Operatives Faked Millions of Comments Against Net Neutrality

Sarah Reeves sat on her couch in Eugene, Oregon, staring at her laptop screen in furious disbelief. She was reading the website of a government agency, where her mother appeared to have posted a comment weighing in on a bitter policy battle for control of the internet. Something was very wrong. For a start, Annie Reeves, who loved to lead children’s sing-alongs at the Alaska Zoo, had never followed wonky policy debates. She barely knew her way around the web, let alone held strident views on how it should be regulated — and, according to her daughter, she definitely didn’t post angry comments on government websites. But Sarah Reeves had a more conclusive reason to feel sure her mother’s name had been taken in vain: Annie Reeves was dead. She died more than a year before the comment was posted. Celeste Noche for BuzzFeed News Sarah Reeves holds a family photo of herself and her late mother, Annie Reeves, on Sept. 20 in Eugene, Oregon. In the spring of 2017, a virtual war was raging over the future of the internet, much of it through comments on the website of the Federal Communications Commission — the government agency responsible for regulating the broadband industry. Reeves wasn’t the only ghost to get sucked in from beyond the grave to do battle on behalf of giant telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Comcast. At issue was a rule from the Obama era known as “net neutrality.” It was designed to protect the open web by requiring internet providers to treat traffic from all sites equally — and under Trump, the FCC was planning to scrap it. Conservatives had long branded the regulation as an assault on free enterprise, but advocates warned that its repeal would allow the broadband giants to manipulate traffic in favor of the highest-paying platforms, crowding out competition and stifling free speech. The stakes were high, and the public comment period attracted a staggering 22 million submissions. The problem was, many of the comments were fake. The New York attorney general opened an investigation and has since issued subpoenas to more than a dozen entities — estimating that “as many as 9.6 million comments may have used stolen identities.” But the FCC went ahead and scrapped the net neutrality rule in a massive victory for the broadband industry and a huge blow, consumer advocates said, for users. Some suspicious comments have been tracked back to particular political operatives. But the question of how millions of identities were marshaled without consent has largely remained a mystery. Until now. A BuzzFeed News investigation — based on an analysis of millions of comments, along with court records, business filings, and interviews with dozens of people — offers a window into how a crucial democratic process was skewed by one of the most prolific uses of political impersonation in US history. In a key part of the puzzle, two little-known firms, Media Bridge and LCX Digital, working on behalf of industry group Broadband for America, misappropriated names and personal information as part of a bid to submit more than 1.5 million statements favorable to their cause. The FCC proceeding is not the only public debate to have been compromised. BuzzFeed News also found that LCX, an obscure advertising agency based in Southern California, has worked on at least two other campaigns that raised similar impersonation allegations — issues that were so alarming that state legislators in South Carolina and Texas referred the matters to law enforcement. Media Bridge, a political consultancy based in Virginia, also participated in the South Carolina campaign. The rise…

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