The Federal Communications Commission misled the public when it claimed last year that a cyberattack was hindering Americans' ability to make their views known about net neutrality, according to an internal investigator’s report released Tuesday.
The report finds that the FCC — relying on information provided by its then-chief information officer — "misrepresented facts and provided misleading responses to Congressional inquiries related to this incident.” The report also said that despite describing the event as a cyberattack, the FCC failed to follow the established cybersecurity policies that are routine in the aftermath of such an event.
“At best, the published reports were the result of a rush to judgment and the failure to conduct analyses needed to identify the true cause of the disruption to system availability,” the report reads.
The report by the FCC inspector general undercuts the agency’s previous explanations for why its computer systems stumbled on a critical day in 2017 as millions of Americans — egged on by comedian John Oliver — sought to comment on Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to repeal the FCC’s net neutrality rules.
Investigators were unable to find evidence backing up an FCC press release, published under the name of David Bray, the chief information officer, asserting that “the FCC was subject to multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks" overnight between May 7 and May 8, 2017.
Although Bray said the FCC’s electronic comment system remained functional throughout the incident, his statement also blamed unidentified outside actors for clogging the system and making it harder for “legitimate commenters” to participate in the agency’s decision-making process.
Bray, who started working at the FCC in 2013, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The FCC declined to comment, but in a statement Monday before the report’s public release, Pai said he was “deeply disappointed” in Bray. Pai also added that the report “debunks the conspiracy theory that my office or I had any knowledge that the information provided by the former CIO was inaccurate and was allowing that inaccurate information to be disseminated for political purposes.”
Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic FCC commissioner, tweeted Tuesday that the FCC’s defense at the time was “bogus … and now this investigation proves it."
The problem with the comment system has become another political flash point in the broader debate over net neutrality. The FCC’s rules, passed in 2015, barred Internet providers from blocking or slowing down websites. But the regulations for Internet providers were officially repealed this year after Pai led a charge to deregulate the broadband industry.
Before voting to roll back the rules, Pai put a draft of his proposal on the FCC’s website as part of the agency’s normal administrative process. Members of the public were invited to submit feedback, and Oliver, seizing the moment, urged viewers of his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” to file comments on the FCC’s electronic systems.
A surge of traffic to the FCC’s website followed. But the report found that members of the FCC’s IT staff were not aware of Oliver’s request — despite a staffer for the show notifying the agency in advance and seeking an interview with Pai. As a result, the IT staff did not take steps to prepare for the increase in visitors.
Oliver’s viewers were “likely the reason" for the difficulties with the comment system and not “automated bot programs,” as the FCC told Congress, according to the report.
And although the FCC’s news release on the matter referred to an “analysis” of the incident, the inspector general’s report found that the agency had not done enough research to be able to credibly use the word.