Ajit Pai at conservative conference

Senators demand FCC provide explanation for cyber attack claims

Image credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is facing scrutiny from Senators following reports that its former chief information officer misled journalists, implying that two website outages were due to malicious attacks.

Earlier this month, Gizmodo revealed that internal emails demonstrate that the FCC had deliberately fed journalists misleading information implying that its website was brought down by distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDOS): a type of attack which involves flooding a service with a mass of requests, causing it to overload and fail.

The controversy is the latest relating to the FCC’s handling of its repeal of net neutrality regulations.

Net neutrality is the principle that all web content should be treated equally. Following incidents of internet service providers (ISPs) treating content differently in order to gain an edge over rivals – such as by charging customers more to access a rival’s app – the Obama administration introduced regulations preventing ISPs creating fast lanes or slow lanes for content, or blocking it entirely.

After being appointed FCC chairman by President Donald Trump in January 2017, former ISP lawyer Ajit Pai has set about dismantling these regulations, eventually succeeding with a 3-2 vote in December 2017 in spite of overwhelming public support for maintaining the regulations.

The repeal process was marred with controversies, many of which relate to the online public consultation process, which attracted nearly 24 million comments. A study by the Pew Research Centre found that 94 per cent of comments were submitted multiple times, with significant use of bots and false identities used to leave anti-net neutrality comments.

In a Gizmodo report published earlier this month, the FCC was accused of fabricating two cyber attacks in order to downplay shows of popular support for net neutrality regulations, which caused its comments section to crash amid the surge in traffic to its website.

The incidents followed net neutrality-themed episodes of comedian John Oliver’s satirical news show ‘Last Week Tonight’ (HBO) in which Oliver urged his viewers to visit the FCC website and leave comments promoting the stronger option for net neutrality regulation in 2014, and defending the regulations during their repeal in 2017.

Notably, in a segment broadcast on 7 May 2017, Oliver directed viewers to the FCC website’s comments sections via a memorable URL, GoFCCYourself.com.

While the 2014 outage was confirmed by the former leadership to have been due to a surge in traffic following Oliver’s broadcast, following a similar incident in 2017, FCC chief information officer David Bray told journalists that the 2014 outage was due to a cyber attack (allegedly covered up for security reasons) and strongly implied that a similar attack had coincided with Oliver’s 2017 plea.

So far, no evidence has been presented to support these claims.

Now, Democratic Senators Brian Schatz and Ron Wyden have written a letter to the FCC asking for clarity on the “alleged cyber attacks”. The Senators have demanded answers to their questions by 27 June, giving the agency two weeks to explain their explanations.

Schatz and Wyden have asked whether the FCC definitely classes the incidents as DDOS attacks and whether any third-parties had investigated the incidents and concluded that the outages were caused by DDOS attacks. If so, the Senators ask why no investigation was conducted into the cyber attacks, and whether the FCC was collaborating with the Government Accountability Office to ensure that its website is secure against malicious attacks.

The FCC did not respond to request for comment.

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