We’ve long discussed how the Pai FCC’s net neutrality repeal was plagued with millions of fraudulent comments, many of which were submitted by a bot pulling names from a hacked database of some kind. Millions of ordinary folks (like myself) had their identities used to support Pai’s unpopular plan, as did several Senators. Numerous journalists have submitted FOIA requests for more data (server logs, IP addresses, API data, anything) that might indicate who was behind the fraudulent comments, who may have bankrolled them, and what the Pai FCC knew about it.
But the Pai FCC has repeatedly tried to tap dance around FOIA requests, leading to several journalists (including those at the New York Times and Buzzfeed) suing the FCC. Despite the Times’ lawyers best efforts to work with the FCC to tailor the nature of their requests over a period of months, the agency continues to hide behind FOIA exemptions that don’t really apply here: namely FOIA exemption 6 (related to protecting privacy) and 7E (related to protecting agency security and law enforcement activity).
In court filings made last week, the FCC also reiterated its claim that the primary reason it won’t release more data is because it’s just super concerned about user privacy:
“If the FCC is compelled to disclose an individual’s IP address, operating system and version, browser platform and version, and language settings, and that information is linked to the individual’s publicly-available name and postal address, that disclosure would result in clearly unwarranted invasions of personal privacy,” the FCC argues in papers filed late last week with U.S. District Court Judge Lorna Schofield in the Southern District of New York.”
To be clear, this is the same FCC that did absolutely nothing to prevent or address the fraud, then actively blocked law enforcement inquiries into this issue. In other words, this FCC has had numerous opportunities to cooperate with both law enforcement by providing confidential data, and has refused to do so. It’s also the same FCC that has done absolutely nothing about countless privacy scandals in the telecom sector, suggesting this sudden breathless concern for privacy may not be particularly authentic.
NY Times lawyers have responded by claiming they’re entitled to the data under the freedom of information act, and it’s essential to discovering where the bogus comments originated. They’ve also argued that information like IP address isn’t all that sacred, since most of the commenters have likely utilized countless different IP addresses in the several years since:
“Most individuals connect their devices to the internet using a steadily changing series of IP addresses assigned by internet service providers,” the Times wrote in a motion for summary judgment. “An internet-connected device’s IP address today may not be its IP address tomorrow. And the IP address of a device used by a commenter in mid-2017 is almost certainly not its IP address in mid-2019.”
Using the data they’ve collected so far, diligent reporters have already found many of the fake comments were driven by CQ Roll Call, a DC-based news and policy organization, and Center for Individual Freedom (CFIF), a “dark money” influence group with historical ties to defending tobacco companies. Who their clients were in this instance should be fairly obvious, but nobody has been able to publicly, directly link the effort to the telecom sector just yet. Given several ongoing lawsuits and investigations by numerous state AGs, the GAO, and FBI, it still seems fairly likely that there’s several chapters in this ridiculous novel yet to come.