Ajit Pai Admits Russia Meddled in Net Neutrality Process

December 10, 2018 - 7 minutes read

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You don’t have to be a mobile app developer, programmer, or any other type of techie to be well-versed about the net neutrality debacle by now. This fiasco has hijacked its fair share of headlines over the past few years due to the tangle of deception and purposeful obfuscation it has spun.

If you thought the complications were over, well, we’ve got some bad news for you: Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has recently stated it’s fact that Russia meddled in the net neutrality process. And just to make things a little more convoluted, the FCC itself has claimed this isn’t true.

Conflicting Accounts

As you may recall, around this time last year, the FCC voted to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules. This result flew in the face of all public interest (and logic) involved in the matter. Leading up to this infamous vote, there was plenty of suspicious behavior occurring—enough to keep a conspiracy theorist busy for years.

Chief among them was a substantial number of fake comments (apparently from the public) supporting net neutrality’s demise. Considering that killing net neutrality seemed to only benefit multi-billion dollar telecom companies, these comments seemed far-fetched from the start.

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So, what was really going on? The story changes, depending on who you ask. Last week, Pai published a memorandum to the FCC’s website in which he essentially claimed a “half-million comments” were “submitted from Russian e-mail addresses.”

Trying to Uncover the Truth

This claim is a stark contrast to the FCC’s take on the situation according to a court filing it made just a few weeks ago in a case brought against it by the New York Times. In the document, it becomes readily apparent that the commission is completely unconvinced that there was any interference in its comment system from Russian entities.

Journalists have been working to uncover what really transpired. Both the New York Times and Buzzfeed filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to see the IP addresses and server logs associated with the public comments made on the FCC’s site. And both were rejected by the FCC. Fortunately, these aren’t the only attempts to get to the bottom of things.

In August 2017, Emprata, an advanced data analytics consulting firm, released a study of the email accounts associated with the comments left by the public. This research was commissioned by a telecom industry group that actually favored Pai’s attempt to dismantle net neutrality.

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It found that 23 percent of the comments (roughly 7.75 million) in opposition to Pai were linked to the fake email account creation site FakeMailGenerator.com. But it also discovered approximately half a million comments were indeed of Russian origin. This comprises about a quarter of the estimated 1.72 million comments that came from foreign domains.

Down the Rabbit Hole

It’s still not clear whether these half-million Russian comments were from actual Russian citizens. But it’s more likely that they were made by bots. The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American fact tank based in Washington, D.C., found that only 6 percent of comments from a group of more than 21.7 million actually contained a unique message. This would mean 94 percent were auto-generated.

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Amid the reports of potential automated messages, bot usage, and Russian meddling, Pai announced to lawmakers that he would be requesting funding to revamp the Electronic Comment Filing System used by the FCC in order to “minimize the potential for abusive behavior.” Strangely enough, by this point, Pai had already received a mountain of criticism for refusing to cooperate with state law enforcement investigations regarding the matter.

This ambiguity and lack of clarity on the matter is what eventually attracted so many journalists to pay more attention to it. And after far too many months of futile back-and-forth between the New York Times and the FCC, the publication accused the commission of failing to give a proper response to their legitimate request for a list of IP addresses linked to the comments.

Here’s an excerpt from the Times’ complaint, filed in September:

“The request at issue in this litigation involves records that will shed light on the extent to which Russian nationals and agents of the Russian government have interfered with the agency notice-and-comment process about a topic of extensive public interest: the government’s decision to abandon ‘net neutrality.’ Release of these records will help broaden the public’s understanding of the scope of Russian interference in the American democratic system.”

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Dressed in the usual legalese used to evade such statements, the FCC responded by essentially questioning whether such a record would even help shed any light on the extent of Russia’s involvement.

Where Does This Leave America?

With the FCC’s recent rejection of the Times’ record request, Pai also took the opportunity to include a convoluted nine-paragraph statement which essentially amounts to some mudslinging on his colleague, Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s only Democratic commissioner. Basically, he calls her out for selective use of data, saying that she emphasizes the half-million Russian comments but ignores the eight million comments from FakeMailGenerator.com.

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Which is funny (and sad), because this type of selective use of information is what many critics accuse Pai and the FCC of. In fact, many question whether the FCC even did any “actual analysis” at all; this wouldn’t be the first time they’ve claimed to do so, only to fail to produce any evidence of such work.

While the battle for net neutrality may have “officially” ended last December, it’s clear that this war for Internet freedom is still being waged. And the results will affect everyone, from innovators in San Francisco to regular citizens in New York. What do you make of these recent developments?

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