Did the Russians Help End Net Neutrality?

September 27, 2018 | by Andrew Regitsky

Did the Russians Help End Net Neutrality?

The telecom industry gets crazier by the week, especially when it comes to net neutrality! If someone told me that a Federal agency such as the FCC would turn over total regulation of the Internet to another government agency (the Federal Trade Commission), I would have told them they were nuts. But it happened! Now things have gotten even weirder! The New York Times filed a lawsuit against the FCC on September 20, 2018, in the Southern District Court of New York, seeking information to determine the extent into which the Russians meddled in the Restoring Internet Freedom proceeding in which the FCC end net neutrality

In the lawsuit, the Times states that under the Freedom of Information Act, it is attempting to 

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.

Moreover, there were undeniable issues with some of the millions of comments filed in the Restoring Internet Freedom proceeding, and the FCC has been very reluctant to provide any insight into exactly what caused those problems.

As many as 2 million comments were fraudulently submitted in other people’s names without their knowledge, and the system was overrun with bots, a favorite tool of the Russians. The system also crashed for a period of time as the FCC was overwhelmed by a massive number of comments supporting net neutrality. 

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel revealed in an Op-Ed after the comment debacle that the commission received half a million comments from Russian email addresses, and nearly 8 million comments from email domains associated with FakeMailGenerator.com — all with nearly the exact same wording. 

A cyber-security company in July issued a report linking FCC comment emails to Russian email addresses named in indictments of Russians and Russian companies as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, according to the Times’ suit. (September 23, 2018, online article from Huffington Post.).

Adding to the concern, the FCC repeatedly denied the Times’ request for the net neutrality comment data, citing security concerns:

We are disappointed that The New York Times has filed suit to collect the Commission's internal Web server logs, logs whose disclosure would put at jeopardy the Commission's IT security practices for its Electronic Comment Filing System. Indeed, just last week the US District Court for the District of Columbia held that the FCC need not turn over these same web server logs under the Freedom of Information Act. (September 21, 2018, online article from ars TECHNICA). 

If the times gets the information it is seeking, and can demonstrate that the Russians did meddle in the net neutrality proceeding, the question arises about what it would do with this information? The newspaper obviously hates Donald Trump and would love to see his presidency end quickly, one way or another. If the Russians have so widely infiltrated our government, and Trump does nothing, could the Times argue this is further proof that he is doing their bidding?

Putting Trump aside, it is no secret that the Times is pro net neutrality and views the Restoring Internet Freedom Order as providing license for ISPs to profit at the expense of the public. 

However, it is important to note that even if the Times were to demonstrate that Russians tried to influence the Commission’s net neutrality decision, there is no evidence that it had any effect whatsoever. The industry was aware that the majority Republican majority at the FCC hated net neutrality and were going to end it, even if all 23 million commenters supported it. Moreover, this is not unique to this Commission. The FCC always accepts comments from the public and always ignores them.

The Times could also be attempting to have a court overturn the Order under the grounds of illegal Russian interference, but that is an extreme long shot. It could also be legitimately concerned with Russian interference in American agencies, but rarely does the Times do anything without an ulterior motive.

The feeling here is that while the Times wants net neutrality restored and is concerned about Russian interference, it mostly wants to embarrass Trump and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, which is a sad commentary on the partisan divisions seriously harming our country.