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

Reader Comments

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Sep 2018 @ 7:45am

    In Soviet Russia, neutrality nets you.

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

  2. icon
    got_runs? (profile), 24 Sep 2018 @ 8:06am

    FCC is a pack of liars.

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

  3. icon
    DB (profile), 24 Sep 2018 @ 10:48am

    I'm hoping that "the press" rolls this up, right to the doorsteps of Comcast et al.

    No doubt they are several intermediaries away from the people that submitted the bogus comments, but paying PR companies to submit fake comments should be treated just like hiring a hit man -- a conspiracy charge on top of the crime itself.

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

  4. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 24 Sep 2018 @ 11:02am


    I heard that Comcast just bought SKY. Wait till the try to wrap their heads around the rules over there.

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

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


    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.

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

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Sep 2018 @ 1:22pm

    Russian addresses

    What's a "Russian e-mail address"? Something with Cyrillic in it? One on a .ru domain? Mailserver physically located in Russia? This very specific number is not explained at all in the article.

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

  7. icon
    ECA (profile), 24 Sep 2018 @ 2:38pm

    Wasnt this...

    Kinda disproven, that the russians did this??
    It was mentioned that it was a group In the area around russia that gets PAID to send data like this, to Flood a site with Stupid Data?? AND GETS PAID FOR IT??

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

  8. identicon
    goonierag, 24 Sep 2018 @ 2:44pm

    here is an idear.

    My name and address was used after I sent a message to the fcc to pai. I said in it something like Why don't you start working for the people that pay your salary and not for the monoply isp's. Something like that. Anyways a week later my information. Name,address,email,etc. I know we can't sue the fcc. Wish I could. But here is an idea
    For all out there that the fcc fake comments used their information to make the false comments. Hell even to the state ag's, anyways tell the ag's or any other organazation fighting the fcc in lawsuits,
    That you give them permission to get all imformation from the fcc for any comment where as your name and address and email was used. Headers and all, Then the fcc cannot use they are protecting privacy and have to hand over the comments headers and all of all the comments that was used in your name,address,email and all.

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

  9. identicon
    goonierag, 24 Sep 2018 @ 2:58pm

    Re: here is an idear.

    P.S. I sent that comment to pai, right on the site,so there is no backing out of it unless they themselves deleted it. I for one will turn over my name,address,email,phone to any of the agencies,AG's that want to request all the information the fcc has on me,seeing how they showed it all anyways in the false comment.

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

  10. icon
    Zof (profile), 25 Sep 2018 @ 6:50am


    Wow, the NYT using a fake russian strawman argument. How original of them. That being said, it would be nice if it works.

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

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