Legal Issues

by Karl Bode


Filed Under:
fcc, foia, net neutrality, transparency



FCC Sued For Ignoring FOIA Request Investigating Fraudulent Net Neutrality Comments

from the ignore-a-problem-and-it-goes-away,-right? dept

For months now we've noted how somebody is intentionally filling the FCC's net neutrality comment proceeding with bot-generated bogus comments supporting the agency's plan to kill net neutrality protections. Despite these fake comments being easily identifiable, the FCC has made it abundantly clear it intends to do absolutely nothing about it. Similarly, the FCC has told me it refuses to do anything about the fact that someone is using my name to file comments like this one falsely claiming I support killing net neutrality rules (you may have noticed I don't).

While nobody has identified who is polluting the FCC comment system with fake support, it should be fairly obvious who this effort benefits. By undermining the legitimacy of the public FCC comment proceeding (the one opportunity for transparent, public dialogue on this subject), it's easier for ISPs and the FCC to downplay the massive public opposition to killing popular net neutrality rules. After all, most analysis has shown that once you remove form, bot and other automated comments from the proceeding, the vast, vast majority of consumers oppose what the FCC and Trump administration are up to.

Attempts to dig deeper into this mystery haven't gone well. Freelance writer Jason Prechtel filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on June 4 asking the FCC for data on the bogus comments, the API keys used, and how the FCC has worked to address the problem. But while the FCC acknowledged the FOIA request, it wound up giving Prechtel the runaround throughout the summer -- stating on June 14 that it would be extending the deadline for responding to his request from July 3 to July 18 -- before ultimately deciding to ignore his request altogether.

As a result, Prechtel has filed a lawsuit against the FCC (pdf), stating the agency is breaking the law by sitting on its hands. From a Medium post written by Prechtel explaining the suit:

"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 their refusal to conduct a reasonably timely search for the records, and have demanded the release of these records. 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”.

If you're playing along at home, this is just one of several lawsuits that have been filed against the agency for its Keystone Cops-esque handling of the network neutrality proceeding to date. The FCC has been sued for obfuscating details on its meetings with major ISPs in regards to net neutrality, and also faces a lawsuit over the agency's apparently completely fabricated DDoS attack it claimed occurred conveniently at the exact same time John Oliver told his viewers to file comments with the agency. Perhaps the more observant will notice a trend at Ajit Pai's FCC?

Again, nobody knows who's behind this effort to pollute the public discourse, and the FCC is making it pretty clear it doesn't want to make it any easier to find out. Having covered the sector for twenty years, this sort of thing is well within the behavioral norms of the wide variety of "non profit," "non-partisan" groups hired by ISPs to pee in the discourse pool. Whoever's to blame, it's pretty clear the FCC is playing a role in not only making it harder to understand what happened, but in undermining the value of the public comment period.

As the FCC moves to formally vote to kill the rules in a month or two, expect Ajit Pai and friends to increasingly use the dysfunction they helped cement to downplay legitimate public opposition to its plan. After that, you can expect all of this dysfunction to play a starring role in the multiple, inevitable lawsuits that will be filed against the agency in the wake of the vote. Again, how was this blistering shitshow a better idea than simply listening to the will of the public and leaving the existing, popular net neutrality rules alone?


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 21 Sep 2017 @ 3:28am

    "If we pretend we don't hear them, maybe they'll go away long enough for us to screw them over."

    But while the FCC acknowledged the FOIA request, it wound up giving Prechtel the runaround throughout the summer -- stating on June 14 that it would be extending the deadline for responding to his request from July 3 to July 18 -- before ultimately deciding to ignore his request altogether.

    Can't imagine what they feel they might accomplish by stonewallling such a request. I mean what could they gain by refusing to answer for a few more months?

    As the FCC moves to formally vote to kill the rules in a month or two, expect Ajit Pai and friends to increasingly use the dysfunction they helped cement to downplay legitimate public opposition to its plan.

    Ah yes, there we are, the mist have cleared right up.

    Again, how was this blistering shitshow a better idea than simply listening to the will of the public and leaving the existing, popular net neutrality rules alone?

    Depends on which perspective you're looking at it from.

    Looked at from the perspective of the general public, it's a terrible idea and will almost certainly cause significant harm.

    Looked at from the perspective of the companies involved, getting rid of the rules is an awesome idea, and paves the way for them to buy laws(that they will quite possibly literally write themselves) that will be carefully written to prohibit things they were never going to do in the first place, while carving out 'exceptions' large enough to drive a tank through for what they do want to do.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2017 @ 6:40pm

      Re: "If we pretend we don't hear them, maybe they'll go away long enough for us to screw them over."

      Why should they listen to the public at all? We are the ones they are going to kill.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Chris-Mouse (profile), 21 Sep 2017 @ 4:07am

    Assuming the FCC loses all of those laesuits, what happens?
    The FCC is given a massive fine that gets paid by taxpayers.
    The FCC administrators responsible for the decisions pay nothkng.
    The telecom companiest tbaf beefit from this aren't even involved in the lawsuits.
    The gutted net neutrality rules remain in place.


    Most taxpayers won't even notice the extra penny in taxes the first result causes.
    Why would government officials change anything as long as the second result remains.
    There's no downside for corporations as long as the third result is true.
    As longas the last result is true, the whole thing is an exercise in buying the regulations you want.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 21 Sep 2017 @ 8:26am

      Re:

      "Most taxpayers won't even notice the extra penny in taxes the first result causes."

      I think it is more likely, given the current constitution of our federal government, that rather than increasing taxes they would take the payment out of some of the programs deemed 'entitlements'.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2017 @ 9:58am

      Re:

      These lawsuits don't seek monetary damages. Rather, they seek to compel the FCC to follow the law. Answer the FOIA request, force them to consider the public comments, etc.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2017 @ 11:32am

        Re: Re:

        Compel? How?

        There is not a single branch of government following the law. Courts do not enforce their rulings, they just run mouth and do nothing. Prosecutors rarely go after government officials unless it is a political act.

        the entire system is corrupt as fuck from the bottom up. not even the voters are without this same corruption. most of them are more than okay with government officials lying, cheating, and stealing if it means they get what they want.

        We are truly reaping what we have sown!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Thad, 21 Sep 2017 @ 12:37pm

      Re:

      Assuming the FCC loses all of those laesuits, what happens?

      There's very good evidence for the other lawsuits alleging that the FCC changed the rules without cause or fair hearing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2017 @ 4:40am

    The FCC is acting as if it is the controlled by the ISPs

    If I were a betting man, I would put my retirement fund on the FCC allowing ISPs to write all of the bogus comments. Now they are scared that their foolproof plan is going to be unmasked by those pesky kids and their dog.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2017 @ 12:47pm

      Re: The FCC is acting as if it is the controlled by the ISPs

      I was reading somewhere that the API was accessed within the FCCs network. I don't know how true that is but if it is, that would be pretty good reason for them to sit on their hands.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Coyne Tibbets (profile), 21 Sep 2017 @ 6:01pm

        Re: Re: The FCC is acting as if it is the controlled by the ISPs

        I came to suspect that as well. Perhaps the reason the FCC doesn't want to pursue this is because the FCC, itself, is generating all these bogus comments.

        That would explain the resistance to investigative inquiry.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          That One Guy (profile), 21 Sep 2017 @ 7:36pm

          Re: Re: Re: The FCC is acting as if it is the controlled by the ISPs

          You don't need to go that far, from what I read in a comment from a previous article(though it's possible I could have misread the details) the method used to spam the comments was one that would have been trivial for them to not only spot but shut down, since it used something on the FCC's end that they can control.

          Given that, it's entirely possible that another party is involved, and the FCC is 'only' to blame for knowingly turning a blind eye to it, which isn't really any better as I see it.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            graphicequaliser (profile), 22 Sep 2017 @ 6:37am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: The FCC is acting as if it is the controlled by the ISPs

            Seeing as the FCC met with ISPs secretly, it could be one of those ISPs has been tasked with spamming the comments. It all strikes me as very clandestine, and that the whole matter should have been handled in a public sphere such that comments are immediately visible to the internet and moderators are publicly appointed.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2017 @ 6:11am

    Given the questionable veracity of said comments, why do some attempt to use same in their justifications/rationalizations?

    Apparently, these folk do not care when most everyone else does not believe anything these folk have to say. Why is this?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 21 Sep 2017 @ 9:05am

    Broadband for America and AT$T are certainly high on the "has motive" list, after their bogus "67% of comments favor repealing Title II" analysis of the comments (that excluded human-written comments in favor of the bots that posted with stolen credentials).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2017 @ 9:30am

    The FCC is our representative

    This is the representation you asked for, why are you all complaining?

    I told you this was going to be the result. Your chair at the bargaining table gets removed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2017 @ 10:14am

      Re: The FCC is our representative

      How's that beach house in Somolia treating ya?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      JBA, 21 Sep 2017 @ 2:27pm

      Re: The FCC is our representative

      Interesting. I was under the impressive less than 50% of the voters chose the current administration, accounting for less than 25% of the total eligible voting populous, AND the FCC are appointed positions, meaning NO ONE "asked for" their representation except for the aforementioned administration that was not a majority choice.

      So much for that logic...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2017 @ 10:46am

    Why would the FCC want to expose thier own bot?

    Of course they'll cover up.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 21 Sep 2017 @ 12:52pm

    Who has a lawyer

    Who has the money

    To SUE every time a our Gov. isnt DOING WHAT its supposed to do??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      stderric (profile), 21 Sep 2017 @ 4:07pm

      Re: Who has a lawyer

      Who has the money To SUE every time...

      Hmm... well, collectively, we citizens do; perhaps the government could sue the government using taxpayer money, and pay the legal expenses and the awards using money generated by raising taxes. Of course, it'd save time & effort if the government just settled with itself before trial.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2017 @ 6:32pm

    Suing the fcc over the bot comments is pulling a thorn out of a tiger's paw with a book. It won't work. Maybe let everyone accuse the fcc for loading up the comments and see what happens.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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