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Pai blames Obama administration for net neutrality comment oddities

Pai blames Obama administration for net neutrality comment oddities
[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai says a forthcoming inspector general report exonerates his agency from accusations that it hampered its own public comments system from collecting millions of comments opposing the agency’s proposed rollback of Obama-era net neutrality rules.

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Ex-FCC CIO David Bray. Image: FCC

The IG report has not been released to the public, but FCC chairman Ajit Pai has seen it and commented on it on Monday. In the statement, Pai says the report “debunks the conspiracy theory” that his office had something to do with the shutdown of its public comment servers after May 7, when talk show host John Oliver appealed to his millions of viewers to express their support for net neutrality.

The FCC’s comments server suddenly choked after the broadcast and became unavailable into the next day. The FCC told the press after the event that the server had been the target of two distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks, the aim of which is to overload a server until it can no longer respond. Not everyone was convinced.

Pai now acknowledges that there was no DDoS attack on the comments server, laying the blame on his former chief information officer, David Bray, for saying that there was. Here’s the key section from Pai’s comments today:

“Indeed, as the report documents, on the morning of May 8, it was the former CIO who informed my office that ‘some external folks attempted to send high traffic in an attempt to tie-up the server from responding to others, which unfortunately makes it appear unavailable to everyone attempting to get through the queue.’ In response, the Commission’s Chief of Staff, who works in my office, asked if the then-CIO was confident that the incident wasn’t caused by a number of individuals ‘attempting to comment at the same time . . . but rather some external folks deliberately trying to tie-up the server.’ In response to this direct inquiry, the former CIO told my office: ‘Yes, we’re 99.9% confident this was external folks deliberately trying to tie-up the server to prevent others from commenting and/or create a spectacle.'”

Pai also said that the CIO’s subordinates were afraid to disagree with their boss, and pinned blame on the Obama administration.

“It has become clear that in addition to a flawed comment system, we inherited from the prior Administration a culture in which many members of the Commission’s career IT staff were hesitant to express disagreement with the Commission’s former CIO in front of FCC management. Thankfully, I believe that this situation has improved over the course of the last year. But in the wake of this report, we will make it clear that those working on information technology at the Commission are encouraged to speak up if they believe that inaccurate information is being provided to the Commission’s leadership.”

The pro-net neutrality nonprofit Fight for the Future issued the following statement on Monday following Pai’s statement:

“Under Ajit Pai’s leadership, the FCC sabotaged its own public comment process. From ignoring millions of fraudulent comments using stolen names and addresses to outright lies about DDoS attacks that never happened, the agency recklessly abdicated its responsibility to maintain a functional way for the public to be heard. Pai attempts to blame his staff, but this happened on his watch, and he repeatedly obstructed attempts by lawmakers and the press to get answers. The repeal of net neutrality was not only unpopular, it was illegitimate. Congress must act now to pass the CRA resolution to reverse this decision and restore basic protections for Internet freedom.”

Fast Company contacted David Bray to get his side of the story. A representative for People-Centered Internet, a San Francisco-based group where Bray serves as executive director, responded to the request.

“Dr. Bray has not been contacted by the FCC IG and has not seen their reported findings,” the person said. “There has not been any outreach to ask what he had seen, observed, or concluded during the events more than a year ago in May 2017.” This alone seems to call into question the thoroughness of the IG’s investigation. The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bray left the FCC the month after the comments server outage, in June 2017. It’s likely he was fired in connection with the comments debacle.

As a result of the Pai FCC’s December 2017 ruling, the network neutrality protections that arrived with the 2015 Open Internet Order vanished June 11. A Congressional Review Act that would have wiped Pai’s new ruling off the books and reinstated the 2015 network neutrality protections passed in the Senate but has so far failed to advance in the House.

A number of polls have found Americans to be largely in favor of network neutrality. A Morning Consult poll found that 60% of registered voters, including 63% of Republicans, support the principle.

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