Net neutrality under pressure as FCC faces lawsuit over failure to disclose comment data
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Legal action is being taken against the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding a Freedom of Information request made relating to the source of mass online comments that advocated or supported limitations being imposed on the principle and practice of net neutrality.
Former attorney Ajit Pai was appointed to the leadership of the FCC by President Donald Trump in January 2017. Since then, he has rapidly made moves to reverse Obama-era policy to ensure net neutrality, the 2015 Open Internet Order.
The principle of net neutrality is that all online traffic is treated equally, no matter the website, user or content.
The principle has been vigorously defended by major figures in technology, including web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. In a “day of action” in support of retaining net neutrality, more than 50,000 websites - including many of the most-visited sites globally - took action to raise awareness and encourage US citizens to send comments to the FCC.
A widely-viewed episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight which urged citizens to submit comments is also thought to have helped raise the profile of the issue, with the FCC’s website crashing due to increased traffic after the episode aired.
In the sixty days allotted to receiving public comments, a staggering 22,149,776 comments were received. 98.5 per cent of unique comments are estimated to support net neutrality.
Despite overwhelming public support for net neutrality, Pai has repeatedly stated that he will not perform a U-turn and has continued to push ahead with dismantling the Open Internet Order.
Since May, there have been reports that many of these comments uploaded (mostly in support of Pai’s rollback) are duplicates or fake and possibly attributed to real people - including deceased people - without their knowledge.
In June, Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democratic Congressman from New Jersey, called on the FBI and Department of Justice to investigate whether these fake comments violated federal law by stealing identities.
In response to these reports, Jason Prechtel, who describes himself as a writer, coder and filmmaker, filed a Freedom of Information request on 4 June, asking for data relating to these bulk comments, which could be used to determine whether any groups of comment could be fake, or that any users with “suspicious” e-mail addresses were allowed to submit multiple comments.
Although his request was acknowledged, he says that he has not yet received the relevant information, despite the deadline for responding passing months ago. His request is still “under agency review”, he wrote.
“As the agency is legally obliged to respond to my request, and as the underlying questions behind my request still [has not] been answered, I have filed a lawsuit against the FCC for [its] refusal to conduct a reasonably timely search for the records and have demanded the release of these records.”
The FCC has not yet responded to the complaint in court.
Facebook’s Free Basics app, at the centre of its Internet.org project to expand internet access, has been heavily criticised for violating net neutrality, and providing a hint of how Americans’ browsing experience may change in coming years.