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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  • identicon
    I.T. Guy, 20 Sep 2018 @ 7:09am

    GQ Roll Call

    Isnt that CQ?

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

  • identicon
    Dreddsnik, 20 Sep 2018 @ 7:37am

    Perhaps I'm just being picayune, but I don't think 'post truth era' is really the proper way to describe what we have become. I think 'post fact era' may be closer to the mark.
    'Truth' is subjective. Everyone's 'truth' is dependent on a combination of what they know and what they believe.
    'Facts' are not subjective. It is the hard core resistance to facts that sits as the root of the difficulties we face as too many people's 'truth' is based on a lack of willingness to accept or seek facts that just may alter what they wish to believe, thus altering their version of the 'truth'.

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

    • icon
      OldMugwump (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 7:56am

      Re: 'post fact era'

      Truth exists (it's not subjective) but our perception of truth is imperfect and subjective.

      To the extent there was ever an era with agreed 'truth', it was the result of having a few gatekeepers who controlled the vast majority of media and news production. Those gatekeepers decided what 'truth' was (often with a strong guiding hand from political authorities), published or aired it, and most people believed it. More or less.

      Today we have social media, web sites, and a proliferation of media outlets of every size. The correlation between the size of the media organization (and funding) and audience is weak. We have tiny 2 - 3 person organizations with outsize influence, and vice-versa.

      I don't think this is all bad - we have a lot more diversity of viewpoint, and people being able to express their views in public is mostly good.

      But we've lost that forced common viewpoint, and that is part of what has led to the extreme political polarization we have today, and to airing of crazy viewpoints that used to be suppressed (faked moon landing theories, flat earthers, pedophile clubs under pizza parlors, etc.).

      Perhaps 'post fact era' is a better description of where we are now, but the problem is not that people aren't accepting 'facts' (tho of course that happens, as it always has), but that people pay attention to facts and outlets that support their viewpoint, and ignore those that don't.

      We need social mechanisms to counteract that - to debunk false 'facts' and expose people to ideas they disagree with.

      Robin Hanson at GMU has some fascinating ideas on how that might be done. For example:

      http://mason.gmu.edu/~rhanson/ideafutures.html
      http://mason.gmu.edu/~rhanson/futarchy.pdf

      Whoe ver gets this right could become the next Facebook.

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

      • identicon
        Dreddsnik, 20 Sep 2018 @ 8:08am

        Re: Re: 'post fact era'

        Thank you for clarifying and I tend to agree with you.
        "but that people pay attention to facts and outlets that support their viewpoint, and ignore those that don't."
        This is pretty much what I meant, but you put things in perspective far better than I could have.
        The 'Echo chamber' effect has long been a part of human behavior. I'm going to spend some time reading those links you provided. Again, thank you.

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

      • icon
        Vic B (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 9:47am

        Re: Re: 'post fact era'

        To add to your insightful comments, let's remember that media has historically been controlled by the powerful, from religious organizations to the various elites and history primarily remembers the written words. Our common understanding is one that has been layered and molded over the centuries, for better or for worse. Many of those left out of the conventional historical discourse are voicing anger, distrust and rejection, also for better or for worse.
        The structuring of history gives us comfort and sense of belonging, at least for those who identify positively with the narrative. I think this is where conservative values are rooted.
        The first explosion of ideas came with the popularization of books when alternative voices finally had an opportunity to be heard, for better or for worse. Because television was controlled by few, at least in countries with limited numbers of channels, it recreated order from the chaotic printed media. Walter Cronkite was "the" news sayer, Vietnam was "the" news, communist Russia was "the" news and furthering the building of the collective consciousness.
        If books were explosive, the internet became nuclear. Anyone can now voice -as I do here- an opinion, however ludicrous it might be. But we haven't absorbed the significance of this, we are in the midst the very first repercussions. We can't even gauge success! Today's article says ESPN+ gets 1M subscribers in 5 months; YouTube star PewDiePie has 67 millions followers; Apple sold 217M phones in 2017... We're flabbergasted by numbers we couldn't fathom 15 years ago and make companies and individuals millions, billions and trillions because we can't figure out how to value things.
        Let's take this back of envelope calculation.. let's say 1% of the US population is a fanatic, that 50% are men, 60% are white and we exclude anyone younger than 16 and older than 70. Let's say that 80% own a computer with access to the internet. That's about 700k nut jobs spewing hatred and potentially reaching millions and billions of people, too many of whom have limited capability of understanding magnitudes and intent, meaning that the potential destructive capabilities of a micro minority is still beyond comprehension. Multiply that by x number of other special interest groups and I can see why the feeble minded decide to check out with as many of their fellow men as they can.

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

        • icon
          Gabriel (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 12:18pm

          Re: Re: Re: 'post fact era'

          >let's say 1% of the US population is a fanatic, that 50% are men, 60% are white and we exclude anyone younger than 16 and older than 70. Let's say that 80% own a computer with access to the internet. That's about 700k nut jobs spewing hatred...

          So fanatics with internet access sure hated if and only if they are white males? That seems unnecessarily bigoted.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2018 @ 10:50am

        Re: Re: 'post fact era'

        The big factor in extremism, is that it only takes hold if there is there is a large economically underprivileged class. Without that class, extremist rhetoric is largely ignored. That is how a pair of German philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution.

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

    • 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.

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

    • identicon
      Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 20 Sep 2018 @ 3:05pm

      Re: 'Truth' is subjective.

      Is that the truth?

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    OFF TOPIC, 20 Sep 2018 @ 7:43am

    FAN DUEL

    Pay Up. Pay the man 750:1 odds under minute to go that Broncos would lose. Broncos won 20-19 over Oakland Raiders with last six second field goal.Now Fan Duel doesn't want to pay up.$110 @ 750:1 odds over $82 grand.

    PAY UP

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

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2018 @ 7:49am

      Re: FAN DUEL

      This comment is not so far Off-Topic. Didn't FCC claim there had been a glitch? Like Fan Duel!!!

      Pay Up.. both of you.

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

  • identicon
    Michael, 20 Sep 2018 @ 7:44am

    They just don't want anyone to see that some of them came from pai@fcc.gov

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

  • identicon
    mcinsand, 20 Sep 2018 @ 8:22am

    if only...

    If only we had an agency to handle things like this sort of fraud, where the agency was responsible for investigating misconduct and fraud. What if this fictional were at the Federal level, to make sure that it had jurisdiction over the whole nation? What if this hypothetical was over ensuring identity and integrity over wire and data Communications? Maybe we wouldn't call it an agency, but it could be a Commission? Yeah, that would be nice. If only...

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2018 @ 9:07am

    Looks like Dick Bennett's going to be running fluffer damage control!

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

  • identicon
    David, 20 Sep 2018 @ 9:30am

    Enough with the Oldspeak!

    It's worth noting that similar campaigns to generate bogus support for unpopular policies have plagued other government agencies in the post-truth era.

    In case you haven't got the memo, "post-truth" is so yesterday. The operative term is "alternative facts". After all, "truth" is merely an interpretation of facts, and reality provides only a single set of those because it is unequipped for dealing with contradictions.

    Wouldn't you rather rely on facts provably made in U.S.A. than generic facts without a certified country of origin?

    There are already unfair trade barriers for facts made in the U.S.A. which are not as readily accepted by foreigners as facts produced elsewhere, leading to a huge trade deficit in respectability. Unfair!

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

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 9:43am

    PRE- email to FCC

    Sorry to say but this has been happening long before the FCC did its thing..
    Every time a Agency requested data, a Corp would supply emails/letter/,.., as to WHY something needed to be done.
    Considering that most of our reps, are abit ignorant of TECH, and other ways to cover themselves, the Corps just hand over the data(that they wanted)

    Our reps without any EXTRA knowledge, like Economics, bookkeeping, Common sense.. Followed the bouncing ball. Just as any PET WOULD DO..
    The Corps have Backdoor'd our system for along time. And for some reason our Gov. is afraid of the corps..That they will LEAVE this country. but in the END, if 1 leaves 5 will replace them. And probably be better off doing it, as they WONT know the tricks that are being used nor have the money to do it..
    LET them all leave, then we invalidate our money and start with NEW...make all those that LEAVE worth nothing.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2018 @ 9:51am

    Fabricated list

    What assurances are there that the list won't be faked by the FCC?

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

    • icon
      Coyne Tibbets (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 12:07pm

      Re: Fabricated list

      Well I'm sure that if the FCC falsifies the list, the court, "would get very choked up. Honestly, there could be tears."

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

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 2:36pm

      Re: Fabricated list

      Given the level of skill they demonstrated trying to pretend that there wasn't mass comment fraud, and/or pretend that they got DDoS'd rather than swamped with people angry with them I'd expect any such attempt would be quickly seen through.

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


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