Ajit Pai Pretends To Care About Identity Fraud That Plagued Net Neutrality Repeal

from the disinformation-nation dept

You’ll of course recall that during the net neutrality repeal the FCC’s public comment process was flooded with bogus comments in support of (and in a few instances in opposition to) the FCC’s plan. Many of these comments came from a bot that filled the proceedings with fake comments in perfect alphabetical order, something that should have been pretty easy to prevent (had the FCC actually wanted to). Many of the comments came from people that had their identities lifted to support the repeal (like myself), while other commenters were, well, deceased.

Nobody’s been able to yet confirm who was behind the identity fraud and bot attack, in part because the FCC actively blocked a law enforcement investigation attempting to find out. The general consensus is that “somebody” (either ISP-linked outfits or some group of partisans) was hoping to erode trust in the comment process to try and downplay the massive public backlash to the repeal. But it should also be noted that this is a problem that extends beyond the FCC, and has impacted other major policy decisions at major agencies government wide.

Back in May, Senators Senators Jeff Merkley and Pat Toomey fired off a letter to the FCC, noting that they too had their identities stolen during the repeal, while urging the FCC to you know, actually do something about it:

“Late last year, the identities of as many as two million Americans were stolen and used to file fake comments during the Federal Communications Commission?s (FCC?s) comment period for the net neutrality rule,? the Senators wrote in a letter to Pai. ?We were among those whose identities were misused to express viewpoints we do not hold. We are writing to express our concerns about these fake comments and the need to identify and address fraudulent behavior in the rulemaking process.”

Pai appears to have finally gotten around to responding to the Senators. In a response letter (pdf) Pai acknowledges that he too had his identity lifted during the scandal-ridden proceeding:

“It is troubling that some bad actors submitted comments using false names,? Mr. Pai said. ?Indeed, like you, comments were submitted in my name and my wife?s name that reflect viewpoints we do not hold.”

Pai, whose agency almost gleefully ignored the vast majority of Americans in opposition to the repeal, proceeds to note that the FCC certainly does need to update its systems (despite the fact it just spent nearly $3 million doing so). Pai agreed that the very least it could do was implement some kind of CAPTCHA system to at least thwart automated bots like the one used last fall. He acknowledged that he’d press Congress for additional funding (something he knows isn’t likely in an era where gutting regulatory agencies is the fashion trend), but there’s certainly no guarantee that anything will actually come of this promise.

In his letter, Pai once again tries to downplay the importance of public comments, despite the fact this was the only real opportunity the public had to express its thoughts on the repeal. He also, amusingly, pretends that the repeal had something to do with the agency’s consideration of the facts:

“I can assure you, however, that the Commission does not make policy decisions merely by tallying the comments on either side of a proposal to determine what position appears to have greater support, nor does it attribute greater weight to comments based solely on the submitter’s identity. And the Commission is grateful to all commenters who engaged substantively with the legal and public policy questions presented in this important rulemaking. Indeed, a review of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order clearly demonstrates that the Commission’s decision was based on a careful review of the relevant law and facts.”

It shows no such thing. The FCC based the lion’s share of the net neutrality repeal on completely debunked lobbyist data points, then ignored millions of Americans clearly annoyed at the agency’s decision. It then thought the best response to the identity fraud problems plaguing the public comment system would be to ignore a law enforcement inquiry entirely. That is, when it wasn’t busy apparently making up a DDOS attack in a bizarre effort to downplay the impact of angry John Oliver viewers (something FOIA e-mails recently confirmed).

Pai also uses the letter to again try and conflate automated form letters commonly used by both sides of the debate (which I affectionately refer to as “outrage-o-matic” letters) with the wholesale bot-driven fraud that occurred. It’s here you’ll notice the FCC oddly has no data on bots or the half a million comments that were found to have originated in Russia, but has ample data on pro-net-neutrality folks that happened to have used an automated letter system but included an incorrect address:

“With respect to your other inquiries, the FCC does not have any information regarding whether any fake comments were submitted by foreign governments, nor can we verify the total number of comments that may have originated from bots. Similarly, we do not have a specific total number of fake comments that were filed. We do believe, however, that at least eight million pro-Title II comments were not filed with accurate names and/ or addresses. For example, 7,568,949 identical comments consisted of a single, pro-Title II sentence: “I am in favor of strong net neutrality under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.”

If it’s not clear, Pai’s still trying to downplay the massive, undeniable and bipartisan opposition to his policies via whataboutism.

Online form letters — even if their users don’t put in accurate addresses or names — are not the same thing as the bot-driven fraud that occurred using dead people; fraud Pai ignored because undermining trust in the public comment system benefited him. And while evidence does suggest some gamesmanship certainly did occur on the pro-net neutrality side as well, that doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of legitimate comments filed with the FCC opposed his repeal (which reflects numerous different surveys on the subject).

It’s very difficult to overstate what a shitshow this FCC’s attack on net neutrality was. It’s something historians are going to spend years dissecting, and blowback from the ham-fisted tactics will reverberate in tech policy circles for decades. And while Pai’s still busy making all of the same bogus claims about his “fact-based” policies choices during the repeal, anybody expecting him to actually address the system vulnerabilities that helped bots degrade trust in the public comment process to his direct benefit–hasn’t been paying attention.

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Comments on “Ajit Pai Pretends To Care About Identity Fraud That Plagued Net Neutrality Repeal”

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33 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

"You'll of course recall" that you've run this dozens of times!

It’s something historians are going to spend years dissecting, and blowback from the ham-fisted tactics will reverberate in tech policy circles for decades.

Really? — Okay, you MAY be right, since "historians" are no longer bothering with anything of consequence, like the utterly astounding LIES that led into the Iraq war (remember that? was in all the papers, a million people killed, three or four million more displaced, country left in ruins? any little stir of memory there? … No?), and the commercial interests of "tech policy circles" will surely fund more whining, even while rake in unearned billions by surveilling us for the state, mainly that they missed a penny here and there.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: "You'll of course troll"

I think he’s trying to say that historians haven’t bothered documenting anything of consequence about the last Iraq war, and therefore nothing will be documented for future historians to pore over regarding tech issues.

That makes even less sense than your interpretation, of course, but I think that’s what he was going for.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“”You’ll of course recall” that you’ve run this dozens of times!”

…and you will of course recall that every article written about a subject may build upon what’s been written about before when new information comes in, or to confirm the current state of affairs. What’s the matter, still so far out of ways to address the content of the piece, you’re now whining that people dare cover a subject more than once?

“any little stir of memory there? … No?”

Yes, I remember it all firsthand actually. There’s even search engines that will direct you to where such things are documented, if you’re so inclined.

accd says:

Public Comments

[ “But it should also be noted that this is a problem that extends beyond the FCC, and has impacted other major policy decisions at major agencies government wide.” ]

Step back and look at the BigPicture — why are ‘public comments’ so critical to government operations (??) … especially since that process is so obviously flawed government wide.

Supposedly, government regulators & policy-makers were established & empowered BECAUSE they knew much more than the general public. Why put government experts in charge if we don’t trust their skils and judgment ??

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Public Comments

Why would your government be interested in public input? Well, that is a bit tangential to the topic but shouldn’t the question be why not?

If you are going to seek input from the public, then it is advisable to conduct it in a reasonable fashion – no? Otherwise, why bother with the charade that everyone laughs at as it only makes the politics look worse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Public Comments

Supposedly, government regulators & policy-makers were established & empowered BECAUSE they knew much more than the general public.

Regulators are meant to look after the public interest, but the US has allowed them to to switch to looking after the corporations interest.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Public Comments

re: “Regulators are meant to look after the public interest..”

…and that is not working as intended — so what is the fix to that (?)

Apparently some people strongly believe we need to get a super-duper tamper-proof public-comments system for regulators, so those regulators will do right … that seems very naive (or more likely a strawman for another agenda).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Public Comments

Look at how other countries run regulatory agencies, and you will find that the revolving door between industry and the regulator does not exist. This is achieved by the head being a permanent civil servant, and any political interface being a minister or secretary appointed from the elected representatives.

Heading an agency by a board appointed by the president, and with short term appointments is a sure fire way of achieving regulatory capture, as the board members are always thinking of their next job.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Public Comments

“Apparently some people strongly believe we need to get a super-duper tamper-proof public-comments system”

I do not agree. I think many people strongly believe that if you are going to have public comments then it should be conducted in a reasonable manner rather than the massive screw up that was the FCC comment debacle.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Public Comments

Public Comments are there to edify the idiots that “think” they have a say in government. It works… just look at how much the acolytes here at TD keep trying to “regulate harder” while simultaneously making fun of FBI Director James Comey for using the exact same bullshit logic.

It keeps the sheep busy!

Anonymous Coward says:

‘the FCC certainly does need to update its systems’ but it wont, not if it’s going to make the charade that Pai was a part of even more exposed! he knows full well that the majority of the US didn’t want the Net Neutrality repealed, but because of his association with the biggest ISPs in the USA, he ignored the people and did what he had been paid to do, repeal Net Neutrality and allow the citizens to get royally screwed, even more so than they were before and even the opposite of what those same ISPs said they would(n’t) do!!

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Government Waste

Erm, no. The IT department are already going to be the guys telling everyone how stupid and wasteful the bureaucracy is. It’s not their fault they have to follow arcane, counter-productive or seemingly utterly pointless. If you want to keep your job, you follow the “we need proper approval even though it’s idiotic” route, not the “I’m going to get fired the second someone spots the CAPTCHA jpeg” route.

Having worked in major corporate environments, I can tell you this is the case there as well. You need something doing that you know will take 2 minutes, but you have to forward on the team X because they have sole access to that system or pass to team Y for a firewall change, and then it takes weeks for approval because you’re not a high priority item.

When you need to fix something like this, it’s usually the procedures and regulations that need to change, not the staff.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Government Waste

Then you still misunderstand the issue. It’s the procedures, budgeting, security audits, testing, etc. that going to cause the cost, not the people doing the work. And, yes, these have set procedures to follow. Even if you know that what you’re doing is risk-free, you have to follow the procedures, because next time someone fucks up and causes real damage, it’ll be the guy who put the new thing on the page that will be blamed, not the middle manager who’s been refusing to authorise downtime for 6 months to install a critical patch.

You also need to work in one of these bureaucracies if you think that anything that’s going to be put onto a public production system is going to come out of “petty cash”.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Pai's honest quote of the day

I can assure you, however, that the Commission does not make policy decisions merely by tallying the comments on either side of a proposal to determine what position appears to have greater support, nor does it attribute greater weight to comments based solely on the submitter’s identity.

All of this is true… since they just ignored the comments altogether.

Now, if only he was as honest in the other quotes, it would be a day to celebrate. But we all know he’s just a political hack placed to take no positive action other than dismantle the authority of his agency. (Which is a common trait in the current administration.)

ECA (profile) says:

From a nation..

That Prides itself on Truth, justice, the American way..
Cartoons that show Heroes that do things for the PEOPLE..
A nation that demands that the poor and humble to be Honest and truthful, and work hard..
A nation that was started by patriots Leaving other nations that were having the SAME problems we have NOW..

From all these dreams and fantasies, we have created a nation BUILT on dreams and fantasies..

NeghVar (profile) says:

Pai and his cronies should be in prison

I am surprised that Pai or any other directly involved with the obstruction of justice are not in prison. Identity theft is a crime no matter how harmful or harmless the misuse of the ID is. Law enforcement is seeking to investigate the identity theft. Pai and his cronies are preventing them from investigating this criminal act.

Under statute 18 U.S.C. 1519:
Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

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