Network neutrality has been a hot button issue on the internet for more than a decade, during which time the balance of power in US policymaking has shifted repeatedly. A new investigation from Buzzfeed News details how a single political consultant managed to flood the FCC with more than a million fake comments opposing net neutrality. The FCC would eventually use those comments as part of its rationale to repeal net neutrality in America.
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) under President Obama enacted strong net neutrality rules to ensure that all traffic would get equal treatment, but that was no overnight decision. The FCC initially proposed a much weaker version of net neutrality, but public sentiment was strongly opposed. Net neutrality was the law of the land for just a few years when Donald Trump won the White House, and both sides geared up for another battle in the FCC.
In 2017, newly minted FCC Chairman Ajit Pai signaled his intention to ditch net neutrality. The FCC anticipated a huge number of public comments, so it set up a way to upload comments in bulk using a Box.com account. Numerous investigations have pointed to a deluge of fake comments opposing net neutrality, but Buzzfeed says it’s identified a single political operative who uploaded more than one million of them. What’s more, he allegedly used stolen personal data to do it.
Buzzfeed News says it gained access to Box data that showed one Shane Cory, the founder of telecom-allied political consulting firm Media Bridge, uploaded a whopping 1.9 million comments to the FCC. Cory has a history working with the Libertarian Party and sketchy conservative videography outfit Project Veritas, and he claims to have run 20 or 30 major public advocacy campaigns.
Buzzfeed investigators filtered the public comments uploaded by Cory, finding that 94 percent of the supposed submitters overlapped with data from 2016’s Modern Business Solutions breach. The data management firm lost account data from 58 million people in 2016, and all of it ended up shared on Twitter. Buzzfeed confirmed contact information in the fake comments exactly matched the breach data. The comments even had the same misspellings, unusual address formatting, and fictional characters like Boba Fett found in the breach data.
This report sheds light on the scale and brazen nature of the fake net neutrality comments submitted in 2017. Shane Cory, of course, denies all of this and accuses Buzzfeed News of producing a “hit piece.” Nevertheless, the report seems credible and rather unsurprising. There’s a lot of money in opposing net neutrality, and we wouldn’t put it past people to use stolen data to do it.
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