FCC Chair Ajit Pai said Thursday that he wanted to tell the public that he did not think hackers were behind the FCC site crash in May 2017 — the FCC’s official position on the matter up until this month — but couldn’t because he thought it might jeopardize an investigation into the issue.
Critics of the FCC’s “Restoring Internet Freedom Order,” the policy that killed net neutrality earlier this year, say Pai wanted to obfuscate the reality that the site crashed under the weight of 22 million comments that supported the idea of net neutrality. Instead, his office put out a statement the site was hacked, casting doubt on popular support for a consumer protection that would ensure all internet content loads at equal speeds.
The FCC’s office of inspector general asked Pai to stay quiet — “do not say anything to anyone,” he recalled before the Senate committee on Thursday morning — about his suspicions that it wasn’t a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack on the FCC website, because the inspector general was conducting an investigation into the matter.
Earlier this month, Pai blamed the FCC’s then-chief information officer, David Bray, for giving him inaccurate info that the FCC’s site has been hacked. He said on Thursday he had suspicions that wasn’t the case but couldn’t say anything because of an investigation into the matter.
“It was very hard to stay to quiet, we wanted the story to get out, not only because it vindicated what we had been saying, that we relied on on [Chief Information Officer David Bray’s] representations,” Pai told Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz.
“So the position I was in, ‘do we breach the inspector general’s request for confidentiality?’” Pai said. “I could have done it but then I would have been accused of stifling an [Office of Inspector General] investigation.”
“I guess what I’m looking for is some measure of accountability as the chairman,” an exhausted-looking Schatz told Pai, his right hand on his cheek. “I understand you were in a difficult position but I cannot imagine that there was not another way to thread this needle and deal with us in our oversight capacity.”
“Put yourself in my position,” Pai pleaded. “You have a request from an inspector general, ‘do not say anything to anyone.’”
Pai was speaking before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, part of a hearing to review activities by the FCC, a group of five commissioners who are each nominated by the president.
A report by the FCC’s inspector general found that the FCC seemingly held back the truth to Congress in letters explaining why the commission’s website crashed. The FCC stuck with its story to Congress and said its site was targeted by hackers who wanted to take down the website. In reality, the site crashed under the weight of visits from millions of real people who wanted to voice opposition to the FCC’s rollback of net neutrality after coverage of the issue by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight.
Jessica Rosenworcel, another FCC commissioner who is at odds with Pai’s views on net neutrality, said in her opening remarks to the committee that the claims of her own agency were “just not credible.”
“Our claims that the agency suffered a DDoS attack following John Oliver’s report on net neutrality? Just not credible,” she said.
In May 2017, Oliver showed viewers of his HBO show how to file a complaint by announcing the redirect URL GoFCCYourself.com, which points users to the “Restoring Internet Freedom” filing — otherwise buried on the website — that no doubt contributed to the wave of people who overwhelmed the website with complaints.
Included in Pai’s opening statement were two paragraphs about net neutrality, which are below in full:
At the time that the Restoring Internet Freedom Order was adopted, there were many hysterical predictions of doom. We were told that it would be the destruction of the Internet, or as some outlets put it, “the end of the Internet as we know it.” And the official Twitter account for Senate Democrats made the following assertion (one word per line in the actual tweet): “If we don’t save net neutrality, you’ll get the internet one word at a time.” This claim was baseless when it was made. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave it Three Pinocchios and found that it “conveys the false impression that a slowdown is imminent unless net neutrality rules are restored,” adding that “we can’t help but feel that we’ve spilled a lot of pixels here analyzing something that simply hasn’t happened.”
The claim remains false today. It has now been 67 days since the repeal of the previous Administration’s utility-style Internet regulations took effect. Far from ending or being delivered one word at a time, the Internet remains open and free. Both the FCC and the FTC are protecting consumers—the former through its transparency rule and the latter through its enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act (which prohibits “[u]nfair methods of competition” and “unfair or deceptive” business practices). And we now have a regulatory framework that is encouraging the private sector to make the investments necessary to bring better, faster, and cheaper broadband to more Americans.
On Tuesday, Democrats in the other house of Congress, the House of Representatives, sent this letter to Pai, saying they were “deeply disturbed” by the inspector general’s report.
Later in the hearing on Thursday, Rosenworcel was asked how she feels killing net neutrality will impact consumers:
“It’s not good for anyone who consumes or creates online,” she said. “We’re adding another gatekeeper and toll online. We could have them build the internet into a fast lane for some and slow lane that’s bumpy for the rest of us. I don’t think that’s the openness that’s led our internet economy to thrive.”