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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Three companies accused of falsifying millions of public comments to support the contentious 2017 federal repeal of net neutrality rules have agreed to pay $615,000 in penalties to New York and other states, New York's attorney general said Wednesday.
The penalties come after an investigation by the New York state Office of the Attorney General found the fake comments used the identities of millions of consumers, including thousands of New Yorkers, without their knowledge.
“No one should have their identity co-opted by manipulative companies and used to falsely promote a private agenda," said New York Attorney General Letitia James in an announcement Wednesday.
Two of the California-based companies, LCX Digital Media and digital marketing company Lead ID, LLC., were hired by the broadband industry to enroll consumers in a campaign to support repeals to Obama-era net neutrality rules. Instead, they each independently fabricated responses for 1.5 million consumers. The third, marketing company Ifficient Inc., supplied more than 840,000 fake responses.
All three companies provide digital lead-generation services, meaning they collect personal information from consumers and then sell it to third parties for leads to generate business.
Messages left for the three companies were not immediately returned.
The investigation also found the companies worked on other unrelated campaigns to influence public officials and regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.
This is the second series of agreements secured by James with companies that supplied fake comments to the Federal Communications Commission. The nation’s largest broadband companies had funded a campaign to generate more than 8.5 million of fake comments submitted to the FCC, with more than half a million fake letters sent to Congress, her office said.
The FCC, a government agency, is supposed to use the comments it receives, from industry and public-industry groups and the public, to shape how it makes its rules.
Net neutrality is the principle that internet providers treat all web traffic equally, without blocking, slowing down, or giving preference to any content. Regulations for net neutrality were designed to prevent internet service providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Charter from favoring some sites and apps over others.
LCX and its principals will pay $400,000 to New York and $100,000 to the San Diego District Attorney’s Office. Lead ID, LLC., and its principal will pay $30,000 to New York. Colorado-based Ifficient Inc. will pay $63,750 to New York and $21,250 to Colorado.
Maysoon Khan is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Maysoon Khan on Twitter.