FCC Won't Disclose Information About Fake Net Neutrality Comments

The FCC has officially denied two journalists' request for more information about comments submitted during last year's net neutrality proceeding.

The reporters, Nicholas Confessore of The New York Times and Jeremy Singer-Vine of Buzzfeed, sought the information as part of their investigation into Russian meddling in the net neutrality proceeding.

Last year, the FCC received an unprecedented 22 million comments in response to Chairman Ajit Pai's proposal to repeal the Obama-era net neutrality rules -- which prohibited broadband providers from blocking or throttling traffic and from charging higher fees for fast-lane service.

Many of those comments were submitted under fake names, or by Russian bots. The precise number of fake comments is unclear, but around 450,000 came from Russian email addresses.

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The journalists filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information about the commenters, including their IP addresses, time stamps and user-agent headers (which could provide information about commenters' browsers).

On Monday, the FCC officially refused to provide the data due to privacy concerns, among other reasons.

“We conclude that individuals possess a substantial privacy interest in their IP addresses,” the FCC wrote.

“In combination with other information, IP addresses can be traced back to a particular computer or individual,” the decision states. “The same IP address that was used to file comments in ECFS could follow that user as she engaged in online banking, researched a medical condition, or checked the website of her child’s school. Providing a list marrying each comment to a particular IP address would allow an individual to connect the IP address to a given name, mailing address, e-mail address, and other information.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel dissented from the decision.

“It appears this agency is trying to prevent anyone from looking too closely at the mess it made of net neutrality,” she stated. “It is hiding what it knows about the fraud in our record and it is preventing an honest account of its many problems from seeing the light of day.”

In September, The Timesasked a federal judge to order the FCC to provide the information. That matter remains pending -- meaning that a judge could still order the FCC to turn over the information despite its stance that doing so would compromise commenters' privacy.

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