The biggest thing Republican FCC chair (and ex-Verizon attorney) Ajit Pai has done since being appointed by President Trump is roll back network neutrality protections. He proposed a new rule doing just that in 2017, and got it passed by the commission by the end of the year.
In the interim, a flood of public support for net neutrality came in through the FCC’s online public comment system–including lots of fake comments, both supporting and opposing Pai’s plan. The comment servers reportedly failed during a crucial moment on May 7, 2017, when HBO’s John Oliver called on his millions of viewers to file pro-net neutrality comments with FCC comment system.
But Pai and his lieutenants told a different story: that the server failure was caused by a planned DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack. In fact, Pai clung to this story even after an internal investigation by the FCC inspector general quickly found no evidence of a DDoS event.
Pai kept telling the DDoS story–to Congress, too–possibly as part of a wider plan to muddy the waters on the public’s real opinion of his plan to destroy net nuetrality rules, which critics called a giveaway to big ISPs like Verizon and Comcast. The explanation that the FCC servers failed because of a cyberattack may have sounded a lot better than an admission that the comments system collapsed under a tidal wave of public opposition to Pai’s plan.
It all sounds a little complicated. Servers, hacks, fake comments, fake explanations–it took me four paragraphs to explain it–and that may have been exactly Pai’s goal: to muddy the waters on the public’s real feeling about a controversial rule-making. (Numerous polls in 2017 suggested a strong majority of Republicans and Democrats favor net neutrality.)
That’s why, in a letter to Pai, four members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are asking questions today. Here’s an excerpt:
“It is troubling that you allowed the public myth created by the FCC to persist and your misrepresentation to remain uncorrected for over a year. This is despite repeated request by members of this Committee–as recently as July 25, 2018, in our oversight hearing–to provide additional information documenting the purported cyberattack. To the extent that you were aware of the misrepresentation prior to the release of the Report and failed to correct them, such action constitute a wonton disregard for Congress and the American public.”
The letter asks Pai to respond to eight specific questions regarding what FCC management knew, and when, including why the commission has still not corrected the record on its prior claims of a DDoS attack.
The digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future was perhaps to first to suspect that the FCC’s DDoS story was false. Today, the group called Pai an “embarrassment.”
Not surprisingly, the congresspeople who sent the letter to Pai are all Democrats. Republicans in the House have been supportive of the FCC’s dismantling of network neutrality protections.
Still, today’s letter is significant because Congress can still pass a Congressional Review Act resolution to reverse the Pai FCC’s controversial rule-making. The Senate already voted in favor of the CRA back in May. Only one Republican in the House has come out in support of the CRA–Mike Coffman of Colorado–but that could change if the credibility of Pai and his dubious methods of collecting and reacting to public sentiment are called in to serious question. House Republicans still have until the end of the congressional session to change their minds.
Today’s letter may start a wider conversation about Pai’s credibility, and the viability of the FCC’s public comment system. The bigger question is whether the FCC really acted in the public interest when it rolled back net neutrality rules.