Equity & Diversity

Cyberattacks During FCC’s ‘Net Neutrality’ Fight? Didn’t Happen, Agency Now Says

By Sean Cavanagh — August 07, 2018 4 min read
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It was the cyberattack that wasn’t.

Last year, during the heat of a torturous debate over “net neutrality,” the Federal Communications Commission said that its system for accepting online public comments was upended by distributed denial of service attacks, described by the agency as “deliberate attempts by external actors.”

But now the FCC’s inspector general has concluded that assertions of an outside attack were unfounded.

A report released by the agency’s IG on Tuesday said that rather than a distributed denial of service attack, the disruption to the FCC’s electronic comment filing system was likely caused by two culprits.The first was “flash crowd” activity that followed the TV comedian John Oliver urging his viewers in May of last year to contact the agency and weigh in on a proposal by Pai to eliminate an Obama-era net neutrality policy.

The other factor was flawed system design, exacerbated by a high volume of traffic.

The agency’s Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, was in charge of the commission when it said a cyberattack was behind the disruptions. He issued a statement this week blaming the agency’s former chief information officer, who the chairman said was hired by the Obama administration, for providing an inaccurate breakdown of the problem to him and the public.

The disruption of the FCC’s comment system came last year, when the agency was flooded with public input as Pai and the commission’s GOP majority moved toward dismantling protections on net neutrality implemented during the Obama administration. Pai’s plan to reverse the Obama-era policy was ultimately approved by the FCC in December in a party-line vote.

Net neutrality is the principle that web traffic should be treated equally by internet service providers so that they’re not allowed to block or throttle content, or unfairly channel it into fast or slow lanes.

Pai, an appointee of President Trump, has argued that his policy, the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order,” cuts unnecessary regulations, encourages telecom providers to invest in their networks, and results in better service for consumers.

But school and library officials fear the FCC’s reversal on net neutrality will give internet providers the power to speed up delivery of content from commercial entities that can afford to pay for faster delivery. Educators, they predict, will be left with slower delivery.

When the FCC made its claim of a cyberattack last year, it was viewed skeptically by opponents of Pai’s internet order, who believed the agency was trying to cast them as bent on undermining the entire public comment process. The more likely culprit behind the comment system crashing, they argued, was the public’s overriding interest in protecting net neutrality—catalyzed around that time by the likes of John Oliver.

‘Shortcomings in the System’

The inspector general’s report said the FCC acted hastily in settling on a cyberattack as the cause.

“Rather than engaging in a concerted effort to understand better the systematic reasons for the incident, certain managers and staff at the commission mischaracterized the event to the office of the chairman as resulting from a criminal act, rather than apparent shortcomings in the system,” the IG report says.

The inspector general also said that some FCC staff members were aware that Oliver was going to air a segment on net neutrality, which was likely to cause a spike in public comments, but they did not share that knowledge.

“Had such notice been provided, the IT group may have been able to take steps to ameliorate or prevent [public comment system] degradation,” the report said.

In his statement issued Monday, Pai said the agency’s electronic comment filing system would be redesigned, with funding from Congress.

But he also blamed the agency’s former chief information officer. Pai said a culture “we inherited from the prior administration” discouraged career IT staff from disagreeing with the CIO.

“In the wake of this report, we will make it clear that those working on information technology at the commission are encouraged to speak up if they believe that inaccurate information is being provided to the commission’s leadership,” Pai said.

Pai’s statement did not name the former CIO, though the IG’s report identifies him as David Bray. Education Week could not reach Bray. But in a comment to the publication Ars Technica, provided on behalf of Bray’s current employer, he said he “has not been contacted by the FCC IG and has not seen their reported findings. There has not been any outreach to ask what he had seen, observed, or concluded during the events more than a year ago in May 2017.”

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who opposed Pai’s policy shift on net neutrality, said the findings of the agency investigation were not surprising.

The report “tells us what we knew all along: the FCC’s claim that it was the victim of a DDoS attack during the net neutrality proceeding is bogus,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “What happened instead is obvious—millions of Americans overwhelmed our online system because they wanted to tell us how important internet openness is to them and how distressed they were to see the FCC roll back their rights.”

“It’s unfortunate that this agency’s energy and resources needed to be spent debunking this implausible claim,” she added.

Photo: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai listens to a reporter’s question after a meeting on Dec. 14, 2017, when the FCC voted to end net neutrality.J acquelyn Martin/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.