New York Times Sues FCC With Eye On Bogus Russian Net Neutrality Comments

from the disinformation-nation dept

So we've pretty well established that somebody flooded the FCC's website with bogus comments during the agency's unpopular attack on net neutrality last year. Many of these comments were made using lifted identities (like Senators Jeff Merkley and Pat Toomey, or my own). Other comments were made using the identities of dead people. Many of the comments were made by a bot that pulled some of these fake identities in alphabetical order from a hacked database of some kind. Exactly 444,938 of those comments were made using Russian e-mail addresses.

The general consensus among activists and journalists is that it was broadband providers or a partisan advocacy group linked to broadband providers, though the FCC's total refusal to aid investigations have made proving this rather difficult. This week, the New York Times sued the FCC for its ongoing refusal to adequately respond to FOIA requests regarding the incident. In an interesting twist however, the Times seems more interested in the Russian angle of the story than the wholesale fraud that occurred:

"The request at issue in this litigation involves records that will shed light on the extent to which Russian nationals and agents of the Russian government have interfered with the agency notice-and-comment process about a topic of extensive public interest: the government’s decision to abandon “net neutrality.” Release of these records will help broaden the public’s understanding of the scope of Russian interference in the American democratic system."

It's unclear whether the Times actually thinks the Russian angle to this story is really the heart of the matter, or whether they're using concerns surrounding other Russian disinformation efforts to help bring some additional national security gravitas to the effort to expose home-grown graft and disinformation.

It's certainly possible Russia saw the net neutrality fight as another opportunity to sow division. But it's also worth noting that bogus comments supporting bad, usually anti-consumer policy is something that's been a problem across numerous agencies for several years, from fake consumers supporting efforts to rein in the banking industry, to the NFL submitting fake comments in opposition to efforts to eliminate the so-called black out rule.

On its face, those mostly likely responsible are the companies trying to shape the policies in question, and here too the most likely culprits in the net neutrality fracas are telecom monopolies with long histories of precisely this sort of nonsense.

Regardless, the Times suit makes it abundantly clear that the FCC refused to lift a finger to help reporters (or law enforcement) get to the bottom of the matter, and has routinely tried to use inapplicable FOIA exemptions (6, B5, 7E) to avoid having to share any real data:

"Repeatedly, the FCC has responded to The Times’s attempt to resolve this matter without litigation with protestations that the agency lacked the technical capacity to respond to the request, the invocation of shifting rationales for rejecting The Times’s request, and the misapplication of FOIA’s privacy exemption to duck the agency’s responsibilities under FOIA."

While it will likely take a while, slow progress is being made to force the FCC's hand on this issue. Journalist Jason Prechtel enjoyed a legal victory this week after he also sued the FCC for refusing to adequately respond to FOIA requests, data from which (largely the e-mail addresses and .CSV files utilized in the bot campaign) should surface in a few months. It's pretty obvious that there's something the FCC doesn't want explored here, and that something may just be exposed in time for not only the midterm elections, but also for the wide array of lawsuits headed the FCC's way this fall.

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Filed Under: ajit pai, comments, fake comments, fcc, foia, russia, trolls


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  1. icon
    Ninja (profile), 24 Sep 2018 @ 12:03pm

    Re:

    This got me wondering if Comcast is responsible for the Russian contribution. I mean, if they have influenced the elections so easily and sowed discord, animosity, division among Americans, why not poison everything else to make the country implode? I mean, cater to the incumbent players so the US keeps lagging behind on virtually every sector, feed regulatory capture so banks go out of control more and more, make health care go to hell etc.

    And all while Americans are bickering over political parties. Sounds like a pretty decent strategy even if it will take years, maybe decades to work. You know, something Wall Street cant fathom: long term strategy.

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