Court Orders FCC To Hand Over Data On Bogus Net Neutrality Comments

from the sunlight-makes-the-best-disinfectant dept

You might recall that when the Trump FCC killed net neutrality, the public comment period (the only chance consumers had to actually offer their opinion) was plagued with all manner of identity theft and bogus comments. Oddly, the FCC didn't seem too concerned that dead people were filing comments to the FCC website supporting their extremely unpopular decision, and even actively blocked law enforcement investigations into what happened. It's worth noting that similar campaigns to generate bogus support for unpopular policies have plagued other government agencies in the post-truth era.

Annoyed by the FCC's lack of transparency and its refusal to respond to FOIA requests for additional data, journalist Jason Prechtel sued the FCC in late 2017. This week, a ruling (pdf) by Christopher Cooper of US District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the FCC to hand over at least some of the data. The ruling requires that the FCC hand over email addresses that were used to submit .CSV files, which in turn contained the bulk comments. The order did not, however, grant Prechtel's request for server logs, which could help detail who used specific APIs.

In his ruling, Cooper stated that understanding what went wrong would help prevent fraud in other proceedings moving forward (something, again, the FCC has shown it's really not too concerned about):

"In addition to enabling scrutiny of how the Commission handled dubious comments during the rulemaking, disclosure would illuminate the Commission's forward-looking efforts to prevent fraud in future processes...It is surely in the public interest to further the oversight of agency action to protect the very means by which Americans make their voices heard in regulatory processes."

Yes, go figure.

The FCC argued it couldn't disclose this e-mail data because it would violate consumer privacy, but consumers were told by the FCC when they made these comments that their e-mail addresses would likely be made public, "mitigating any expectation of privacy," the Judge declared. Again, the FCC's disinterest in getting to the bottom of this issue can't be over-stated, the agency ignored nine inquiries over a period of five months by New York State investigators looking for more data on the problem, and (like that DDOS the agency was caught fabricating) refused to seriously respond to journalists' inquiries.

In a blog post, Prechtel stated that he's not sure when he'll actually get access to the data, but was pleased that the court saw the importance for transparency surrounding the FCC's historically-unpopular policy:

"Regardless of how the rest of the case plays out, this is already a huge victory for transparency over an issue that has gone unanswered by the FCC and its current leadership for too long. Of course, it may be a matter of months before we actually get to see the records I won (or may still win), and learn who else was submitting bulk comments to the FCC that we don’t already know about. Even then, the full scope of the records I asked for only goes through early June 2017, and doesn’t encompass several more months of millions of comments the FCC went ahead and let flood into their system in spite of all the high-profile controversy."

A big source of the bogus comments appear to have originated with GQ Roll Call, on behalf of an "anonymous client" (which most assume is either a major broadband provider like AT&T or Comcast, or some other proxy partisan organization they covertly fund). Hopefully the data, whenever it arrives, helps shine a little more light on precisely what it is the FCC pretty clearly doesn't want exposed to the light of day.

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Filed Under: ajit pai, comment system, data, fcc, fraud, jason prechtel, open records


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  1. icon
    The Wanderer (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 9:31am

    Re:

    The way I usually describe it - inspired by thinking about your stereotypical detective, a-la Sherlock Holmes, seeking out and analyzing facts in order to arrive at the truth - is that "facts are about observation; truth is about understanding".

    Of course, a truth - once understood - can, at least in some cases, become a fact to be used in the search for further truth; and if the understanding was incorrect, then you can wind up going down a false path, and get further and further away from reality.

    But the basic idea still seems fairly cogent, to me.

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