The Federal Communications Commission has denied Freedom of Information Act requests related to the agency’s net neutrality comment periods. The requests, which were filed by The New York Times and Buzzfeed, were intended to further reporting on two lingering controversies: a large number of faked public comments on the FCC’s net neutrality rollback proposal and a false cyber-attack report that the FCC appears to have used as a cover story for a crash of its online comment system.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the Republican majority of the FCC’s Board of Commissioners (which still has four members rather than the usual five months after Democrat Mignon Clyburn’s resignation) ruled against the FoIA request, with Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the Commission’s sole remaining Democrat, dissenting.
Pai defended the decision as a way to protect the privacy of the members of the public who commented on the FCC’s proposal. But the decision certainly seems to help him and the rest of the agency’s Republicans as they face continued scrutiny over issues related to the comission’s comment system in the run-up to the vote that ended major Obama-era net neutrality measures.
Before the FCC’s controversial vote to end net neutrality, the agency invited the public to comment on the matter. It didn’t go well: the comment section was flooded with transparently phony comments in favor of the GOP-backed neutrality rollback, many of which used Russian email addresses and appeared to be Russian “bots.” Then the FCC’s comment system went down — the result, the FCC claimed at the time, of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) cyber-attacks.
But the DDoS story turned out to be false, and top FCC officials appear to have known that all along. Pai conceded as much in August, and admitted that he had known the truth for month. He blamed the FCC’s former Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the misinformation. Rosenworcel said in a statement at the time that the true cause of the comment system crash was the rush of pro-neutrality comments inspired by HBO talk show host John Oliver, who asked his viewers to comment shortly before the crash.
But verifying that account and learning more about the fake comments made in the run-up to the crash requires server logs, and Pai’s FCC seems determined to keep them — and the truths they might reveal — out of reporters’ hands.
Pai’s FCC might not be out of the woods just yet, though. The incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will reportedly lead to more scrutiny of Pai’s FCC, and the House has the power to subpoena the same sorts of records that the Times and Buzzfeed were after.
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