A judge has ordered the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to disclose the IP addresses of individuals who submitted automated or fraudulent comments during the 2017 debate over net neutrality.
Federal Judge Lorna G. Schofield made the ruling in the ongoing legal battle between the New York Times and the FCC, and a copy of the corresponding filing was shared with Digital Music News.
In 2017, the FCC invited the public to voice their opinions on net neutrality’s status and possible repeal through the Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS). Ultimately, over 20 million comments were entered into the ECFS, but reporters and some government agencies subsequently investigated “whether the public comment process was tainted by fraud.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of commenters used temporary or duplicate email addresses, and 94 percent of the comments were submitted multiple times – points that seem to be indicative of a non-organic element within the process. Plus, 75,000 comments “were submitted at the very same second” on nine different occasions, per Pew Research’s findings.
The New York Times filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Federal Communications Commission in June 2017, for the public comment process’s server logs, before negotiating with the FCC and reducing the request’s scope to cover only IP addresses, timestamps, and usernames.
In ordering the FCC to produce the information, Judge Schofield indicated that, contrary to the agency’s arguments, the requested data is covered by FOIA; she also rejected the entity’s distinction between “research” and “search.”
Finally, Judge Schofield stated that though the script used to extract the comments will pinpoint all posted messages during the period – not solely those relating to the net neutrality argument – the “risk of producing inaccurate information” doesn’t outweigh the significance of disclosure.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (who voted to keep net neutrality intact) voiced her opinion of the news on Twitter: “Remember when the FCC tried to cover up fraud & fake comments in its #netneutrality proceeding? Journalists wanted to get to the bottom of this mess. The FCC told them go away. But a court just told the FCC to stop hiding from the press. So it’s time for the agency to come clean.”
At the time of this writing, the FCC hadn’t publicly responded to Judge Schofield’s ruling.