The Federal Communications Commission is under mounting pressure from lawmakers and open internet advocates to identify the unknown actors who crippled the agency's online comment system last month, temporarily preventing members of the public from weighing in on the FCC's plan to dismantle US net neutrality protections.
The FCC recently responded to an inquiry from Democratic lawmakers about the May 7 incident, which the agency characterized as a "non-traditional DDoS [distributed denial of service] attack" that "precluded human user access to the system." In a letter to lawmakers, FCC officials asserted that the agency had "sufficiently addressed the disruption."
But the FCC's response failed to satisfy Democratic lawmakers from two influential House committees, who on Monday demanded additional answers from the agency about the attack, as well as other irregularities that have raised concerns about whether the FCC's net neutrality comment process is being manipulated by outside interest groups.
For example, there have been numerous reports of identical comments filed with the FCC using phony names and appropriated identities. The sheer number of identical comments suggests that outside interest groups may be using automated bots to flood the FCC's system in a coordinated "astroturfing" campaign to influence the agency's net neutrality proceeding. (It's worth noting that allegations of suspicious comments have come from both pro- and anti-net neutrality camps.)
"We ask you to examine these serious problems and irregularities that raise doubts about the fairness, and perhaps even the legitimacy, of the FCC's process in its net neutrality proceeding," the Democratic lawmakers wrote in their letter to the FCC. "Giving the public an opportunity to comment in an open proceeding such as this one is crucial—so that the FCC can consider the full impact of its proposals, and treat everyone who would be affected fairly."
Net neutrality, the principle that all legal internet content and services should be equally accessible to consumers, was codified by the Obama-era FCC's landmark 2015 Open Internet Order. Now, President Trump's handpicked FCC chief, former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, is working to roll back that policy, much to the alarm of public interest advocates and scores of internet companies large and small that are planning a "day of action" on July 12 to protest Pai's plan.
"Large numbers of people were prevented from voicing their legitimate concerns about the agency's plan to dismantle net neutrality protections."
Open internet advocates are concerned that the FCC is not doing enough to identify the perpetrators of the May 7 attack, which occurred after HBO comedian John Oliver urged viewers to flood the agency's comment system, as well as the origin of potentially fraudulent comments designed to affect the outcome of the agency's net neutrality proceeding.
Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, a leading pro-net neutrality group, on Monday accused Pai and the FCC of "blatantly trying to sweep this under the rug."
"Large numbers of people were prevented from voicing their legitimate concerns about the agency's plan to dismantle net neutrality protections, while at the same time they have refused to do anything about the massive number of fake anti-net neutrality comments that have been submitted using stolen names and addresses," Greer said in a statement.
Open internet advocates argue that the FCC's net neutrality policy is essential for maintaining the internet as an open platform for economic growth, online innovation, citizen empowerment, political organizing, and free speech. If Pai is successful in rolling back the FCC's net neutrality policy, internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T and Verizon could feel emboldened to favor their own online services, discriminate against rival internet offerings, or sell access to internet "fast lanes" to the highest bidder, these advocates say.
The nation's largest ISPs oppose the FCC's net neutrality policy because it subjects them to strict regulatory oversight as "common carriers" under the Title II of the Communications Act. Pai has argued that the FCC's policy has reduced broadband capital investment, but public interest groups strongly dispute that assertion.
Members of the public have until July 17 to comment on the FCC's net neutrality proceeding. Reply comments will then be due on August 16, unless the FCC extends the process. After that, a final FCC decision on the net neutrality rollback could take several more months.
A FCC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Democratic lawmakers' letter.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.