Net neutrality protest

FCC found to have implied false cyberattack during net neutrality repeal

Image credit: REUTERS/ Kyle Grillot

Internal emails reviewed by Gizmodo have revealed that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deliberately fed journalists misleading information about an incident during the public consultation for the net neutrality regulations repeal.

The emails demonstrate how the FCC nudged journalists to report that the failure of its comment filing system was due to a cyberattack rather than due to a mass of net neutrality activists flocking to the site to leave comments defending the regulations.

Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all web content equally. The net neutrality regulations, which were introduced by the Obama administration in 2015, prevented ISPs from speeding up, slowing down or entirely blocking content in order to gain an edge over competitors. The regulations were introduced following numerous reports of ISPs discriminating against their competitors’ content, such as in 2012 when AT&T announced that it would disable its competitor’s FaceTime app on customers’ iPhones unless they upgraded to a more costly plan.

Since being appointed chairman of the FCC by Donald Trump in January 2017, Ajit Pai has worked to dismantle the Obama-era net neutrality regulations. The public consultation for the repeal was marred with controversy, with a study by the Pew Research Centre finding that 94 per cent of comments were submitted multiple times, with extensive evidence of bots and false and stolen identities being used to leave anti-net neutrality comments: including by “Barack Obama” and other politicians, “Michael Jackson” and “Homer Simpson”.  Despite overwhelming public support for retaining the regulations, Pai succeeded in repealing the rules with a 3-2 vote in December 2017.

During the months-long consultation process, comedian John Oliver, who hosts HBO’s satirical news show Last Week Tonight, called on his millions of viewers to support net neutrality regulations. In a segment broadcast on 7 May 2017, he defended the Obama-era rules and directed his viewers to the FCC website, even buying the memorable URL in order to redirect users to the FCC comments section.

“Every internet group needs to come together,” Oliver said. “We need all of you. You cannot say you are too busy when 540,000 of you commented on Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement.”

Following the broadcast, the FCC comments filing section went offline. According to the FCC, this was due to a distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS attack): a type of cyberattack in which a service is flooded with requests, causing it to overload and fail.

The incident following Oliver’s 2017 broadcast was very similar to an incident in 2014 in which Oliver called on viewers to go to the FCC website in order to leave comments favouring the introduction of stricter options for net neutrality regulations. In this instance, the service also failed and the FCC – under its former leadership – confirmed that this was due to a sudden surge in traffic associated with Oliver’s broadcast.

Following the 2017 incident, however, FCC employees tricked journalists by referring to the 2014 as a cyberattack. According to 1300 internal emails acquired by American Oversight and reviewed by Gizmodo, David Bray, who served as FCC chief information officer until June 2017 and was responsible for the comment service, told a reporter that his predecessors had covered up a DDoS attack in 2014 and implied that a similar attack had recurred.

“There *was* a DDos event right after the [John Oliver] video in 2014,” he wrote in an email. No evidence has been presented to support these claims.

“The [FCC] security team was in agreement that this [2014] event was not an attack,” an anonymous former FCC security contractor told Gizmodo. “The security team produced no report suggesting it was an attack. The security team could not identify any records or evidence to indicate this type of attack occurred as described by Bray.”

After being unable to provide evidence that the suggested DDoS attack was responsible for the 2017 incident, Bray reportedly reached out to a journalist to state that a cyberattack was to blame. This version of events was reported by the Wall Street Journal, and this report was subsequently circulated by Bray to other reporters was the definitive account of what had occurred. A similarly sympathetic report on ZDNet was also shared by Bray with reporters.

FCC officials were also found to have emailed journalists comparing the 2017 incident to a DDoS attack by a hacking group on Pokémon Go servers in the summer of 2016.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told Gizmodo: “I have seen no evidence of a DDoS attack on the FCC comment system, but I did see millions of Americans write in to the FCC to stop its misguided effort to roll back net neutrality. It’s time for the agency to own up to what really happened.”

Bray has since detailed his version of the events in a post on Medium, which explains how he reached his conclusion based on the spikes in traffic experienced during the 2017 incident.

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