“Fake” Net Neutrality Comments At Heart Of Lawsuit Filed Against FCC
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Lawsuit: FCC ignored public records request for data on mass comment uploads.
The Federal Communications Commission has ignored a public records request for information that might shed light on the legitimacy of comments on Chairman Ajit Pai’s anti-net neutrality plan, according to a lawsuit filed against the FCC.
Freelance writer Jason Prechtel filed a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request on June 4 asking the FCC for data related to bulk comment uploads, which may contain comments falsely attributed to people without their knowledge. But while the FCC acknowledged receiving his FoIA request, it did not approve or deny the request within the legally allotted timeframe, Prechtel wrote in a lawsuit filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
“As the agency is legally obliged to respond to my request, and as the underlying questions behind my request still haven’t been answered, I have filed a lawsuit against the FCC for [its] refusal to conduct a reasonably timely search for the records, and have demanded the release of these records,” Prechtel wrote in a blog post describing his court complaint on Friday. “Even now, over three months after my FOIA request, and even after I’ve filed a lawsuit, this request is still listed as ‘under agency review.'”
Prechtel’s court complaint includes a copy of correspondence between himself and the FCC. The commission notified him on June 14 that it would be extending the deadline for responding to his request from July 3 to July 18.
After the July 18 deadline passed, Prechtel wrote to the FCC to ask when he should expect a response to his FoIA request.
“I never heard from the FCC again,” Prechtel wrote.
FoIA sought e-mail addresses
There are more than 22 million public comments on Pai’s plan to repeal the commission’s net neutrality rules, which prevent ISPs from interfering with Internet traffic and include various other consumer protections.
Prechtel noted that “Public comments under real people’s names were found to have been posted without their knowledge” and that “Multiple analyses claimed that up to millions of comments (pro- or anti-) were likely faked.”
Figuring that it is particularly easy to fake comments using the FCC’s system for uploading comments in bulk, Prechtel sought information on those bulk uploads.
“Fortunately, these bulk comments couldn’t be sent completely anonymously,” he wrote. “The Bulk Upload Template method also required the submission of the uploader’s e-mail address. The API method required a valid e-mail address to receive the necessaryAPI key to begin with—plus, the entire point of an API key system is to give (and track) individual user access to a given server.”
As described in Prechtel’s lawsuit, his FoIA request asked for the following:
- All public API keys, including associated registration names and e-mail addresses, used to submit online comments relating to [the net neutrality proceeding] and copies of all data files submitted through these API keys for the same.
- Logs of all dates and times that those API keys were used to submit comments.
- The e-mail addresses associated with .CSV comment uploads, along with all .CSV files uploaded in response to Proceeding.
- Logs of all dates and times the e-mail addresses submitted comments.
- All e-mail inquiries to ECFSHelp@regarding .CSV comment submissions to the Proceeding.
The FCC has not filed a formal response to the complaint in court yet. When contacted by Ars, an FCC spokesperson declined comment on the lawsuit. Regarding the FoIA request, the FCC said, “Staff is working diligently to respond to Mr. Prechtel’s voluminous request. As always, FOIA staff are available to address any concerns FOIA requesters have regarding the status of their requests.”
FCC faces multiple lawsuits over net neutrality
Prechtel argued that the data he requested can be used to determine whether “any groups of comments submitted by particular e-mail addresses correlate with what other previous comment analyses suspect are fake comments” and “if any suspicious e-mail address URLs (lobbyists, PR firms, .gov addresses, non-US domain names, etc.) were allowed to submit bulk comments.”
Prechtel also argues that suspicious comment uploading patterns might shed light on the FCC comment system’s downtime on May 8, an event the FCC has blamed on multiple distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. Democratic lawmakers have criticized the FCC for failing to provide information substantiating the DDoS claims and have called for an independent investigation.
“I believe the API key log information I requested can help identify who was behind the alleged FCC cyberattack on May 7-8,” Prechtel told Ars. But so far, his efforts to get that information have been met with silence, he said. “It has now been over three months since anyone at the FCC has reached out to me, and nearly two months since they have been legally required to respond to my request or request another extension to process it,” he said.
Prechtel is being represented by Loevy & Loevy, which also represented him in a previous FoIA lawsuit involving the Chicago Transit Authority.
Another freelance journalist named Kevin Collier recently filed a lawsuit against the FCC, alleging that the commission failed to comply with FoIA requests about the alleged DDoS attack and the agency’s analysis of anti-net neutrality comments generated by astroturfers. The FCC hasn’t responded to the lawsuit yet.
Another lawsuit filed against the FCC came from a group that says the commission failed to comply with a public records request for communications about net neutrality between FCC officials and Internet service providers. The FCC said it provided the requested records on August 29, more than one month after the lawsuit was filed.
The FCC also initially refused to release the text of all net neutrality complaints received by the commission. It has since made more of the complaints public and promises to release the rest eventually.
While AT&T claims that most “legitimate” net neutrality comments favor repeal, a study funded by ISPsfound that 98.5 percent of individually written net neutrality comments support the US’ current net neutrality rules.
Pai has made it clear that the number of pro-net neutrality comments won’t affect his stance against the current rules. The public comment period is now over, and the FCC could vote on a final plan to repeal net neutrality rules within months. If that happens, net neutrality proponents could cite irregularities in the commission’s repeal process if and when they sue the FCC to restore the rules.