The Federal Communications Commission has obstinately hidden information concerning its system for gathering public input about its unpopular plan to kill net neutrality amid signs of Russian manipulation of the comment procedure, according to a New York Times lawsuit.
Freedom of Information Act requests by the newspaper concerning the comment system were turned down repeatedly by the FCC as the Times attempted to investigate possible influence by Russia after huge numbers of comments were linked to Russian emails.
Stonewalling by the FCC has made the American public the “victim of an orchestrated campaign by the Russians to corrupt the notice-and-comment process and undermine an important step in the democratic process of rule-making,” states the Times’ lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in U.S.District Court in the Southern District of New York.
The agency also ignored similar demands — at least nine times — from the New York attorney general last year as that office investigated millions of suspicious comments.
The FCC voted last year to end net neutrality, upending the American internet system. The change allows internet service providers to block, slow down, or charge extra for certain content.
The FCC’s bungled comment procedure has long been the target of criticism. As many as 2 million comments were fraudulently submitted in other people’s names without their knowledge, and the system was overrun with bots, a favorite tool of the Russians. The system also crashed for a period of time as the FCC was overwhelmed by a massive number of comments supporting net neutrality.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel revealed in an Op-Ed after the comment debacle that the commission received half a million comments from Russian email addresses, and nearly 8 million comments from email domains associated with FakeMailGenerator.com — all with nearly the exact same wording.
A cyber-security company in July issued a report linking FCC comment emails to Russian email addresses named in indictments of Russians and Russian companies as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, according to the Times’ suit.
The Times initially filed a request in June 2017 for FCC server logs linked to the system for accepting public comments. The request, the Times stated in the lawsuit, “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 FCC refused, saying that fulfilling such a request would breach the privacy of people sending comments, would put security practices at risk and would be overly burdensome.
Public comments are open to public review — or identifying information can easily be redacted, the Times argued. It also pared back its request — a number of times — to reduce any security risk and the burden of fulfilling the request.
The paper finally filed suit after being stonewalled by the FCC for over a year.
“We are disappointed that The New York Times has filed suit to collect the commission’s internal web server logs — logs whose disclosure would put at jeopardy the commission’s ... security practices for its Electronic Comment Filing System,” an FCC representative told Ars Technica.