Ajit Pai says he was asked to keep quiet about the fact that a cyber attack his agency claimed happened never did.
Last year, a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) site for people to submit comments on the net neutrality repeal went down due to a flood of commenters last year. At the time, the organization, and its head Pai, told the public and congress that it was a targeted attack. This wasn’t true.
On Thursday, Pai told a senate committee that he had his doubts about the targeted attack from the beginning, but went along with what the FCC’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) claimed.
“Once we knew what the conclusions were it was very hard to stay quiet,” Pai, the chair of the FCC, said during a hearing with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “We wanted the story to get out because it vindicated what we were saying, that we were relying on the Chief Information Officer.”
Last year, the Electronic Comment Filing System that was collecting comments from the public about the FCC’s plans to revoke net neutrality protections was overwhelmed after a flood of people logged on to share their opinions. Prior to this, comedian John Oliver had dedicated an episode of his show “Last Week Tonight” to the net neutrality debate and encouraged viewers to share their thoughts with the FCC through the online system, and even set up a dedicated URL to direct people to the filing system.
The next day, the FCC claimed that the filing system’s struggles wasn’t due to the flash mob of John Oliver fans, but a distributed denial-of-service attack, or DDoS—an attempt to disable an online service by overwhelming it with traffic. However, an inspector general investigation found that this was not true, according to a report released last week.
During a committee hearing on Thursday, Pai said that he was skeptical from the get go about whether a DDoS attack had actually taken place, but was relying on his Chief Information Officer, Dr. David Bray, who insisted that there was plenty of evidence of an attack.
“My assumption was it was John Oliver’s viewers,” Pai told Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “I did have doubts, which is why I asked our chief of staff, who then asked the CIO.”
Pai went on to claim that he found out in January, from the inspector general’s office, that indeed no attack had taken place, but was asked not to say anything lest it interfere with the investigation.
“It’s a difficult position to be in,” Pai said, speaking over the Senator at some points. “The story in this report vindicates my position, that I was relying on the CIO. It was in our interest to get it out sooner. I did what I thought was the right thing to do, which was stick by the IG.”
The report has sparked a controversy over what Pai knew and when, and whether the FCC willfully misled Congress and the public about the problems with the comment system, which prevent many people from accessing it and filing comments about the net neutrality proposal. In addition, it’s since been found that a majority of the comments were made by bots, or by people using stolen identities. The FCC is required to consider these public comments before voting on a decision like net neutrality, leaving critics to question whether the agency purposely hid flaws in the system in order to push through the unpopular decision.
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