Ajit Pai has been able to escape scrutiny as head of Trump’s FCC. That’s about to change.
Comedians and the Federal Communications Commission have not always been the best of friends. But the conflict between HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and the agency in charge of regulating the nation’s communications sector had nothing to do with the seven dirty words. Instead, it all started when Oliver told viewers to submit comments to the agency in an effort to revive net neutrality. The next day, the FCC claimed that an onslaught of comments following the segment had overwhelmed the agency’s comment system and had caused it to crash. The agency’s then-Chief Information Officer David Bray determined the large volume of comments had been the work of bots, the result of a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, despite having experienced similar outages in 2014 after a different segment where Oliver urged his viewers to write the agency.
The problem? The alleged DDoS never happened. Over a year later, after an internal investigation into the matter was made public, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai admitted to Congress that the initial report that bots were responsible had been wrong; the system crashed because it couldn’t handle the number of authentic comments inspired by Oliver’s segment. After months of accusations from the press and lawmakers that the FCC had deceived the public about the attack, an answer was reached. But net neutrality was already dead. According to the agency’s own inspector general, the “FCC made several specific statements that we believe misrepresent facts about the event or provide misleading information [to Congress].”
Even at the close of the DDoS investigation, questions lingered. Why had it taken the FCC nearly half a year to disclose to Congress that a DDoS attack had not been the cause of the site crash? Why, despite immense skepticism from both the press and tech advocates, did an agency regulating the internet so credulously believe the claims in the first place? Many of these questions were raised in an August oversight hearing of the agency—just the second in a year in which the agency had undergone rapid deregulation. Pai didn’t have much to say on the matter, except that the agency’s inspector general had advised him to not discuss the open investigation because the issue had been sent to the Department of Justice for “potential criminal prosecution.”
“I guess what I’m looking for is some measure of accountability,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told Pai at the hearing. In late October, Schatz was one of several senators to sign a letter pressing the FCC inspector general to further investigate other issues related to the net neutrality comment process; namely, if the number of comments from stolen identities—nearly 10 million—were the product of Russian interference.
“That’s a crime under federal and state law. And it happened here and the agency has not done anything to investigate this crime or fix this problem,” says FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the sole Democrat on the commission. “And it’s certainly something that I think Congress should shine a light on.”
House Democrats have expressed similar concerns as their colleagues in the Senate. “He never said, ‘I was wrong’ or ‘It turns out we were given misinformation.’ He just kept holding to that line. When someone lies like that, you have to hold them accountable,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, tells Mother Jones. “I think we have got to understand why they gave us such wrong information.”
But now that Democrats are about to take charge of the House in January, lawmakers plan to force some accountability on Pai. FCC oversight is a top priority for the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the upcoming session, according to committee members.
“We plan to put the consumer first by pushing policies that protect net neutrality, promote public safety, and provide meaningful privacy and data security protections that are seriously lacking today,” ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who is running to chair the committee, wrote in a statement to Mother Jones. “It’s also important that the committee get back to conducting real oversight of the FCC, and that means regular oversight hearings with all commissioners.”
Congress won’t be lacking for things to look into. While many Trump favorites have been undone by their own extravagance, the FCC has managed to quietly undo decades of regulations, leaving a trail of backdoor meetings and potential ethics violations along the way.
Here are just a few of the topics that will come under the spotlight as Congress looks into Pai’s tenure at the FCC:
It’s still unclear what legal path forward remains for net neutrality. In May, the Senate voted to pass a Congressional Review Act that would overturn the FCC’s gutting of net neutrality rules. But the measure has gone nowhere in a Republican-led House, and it looks unlikely the CRA will come up for a vote before this Congress ends. The time limit for passing a CRA expires in December, so Democrats won’t have that option when they control the chamber, although they could push new legislation to try to restore net neutrality.
Once the House Energy and Commerce Committee selects its new chair, representatives will likely join their colleagues in the Senate in calling for an investigation into comment fraud. While the agency has repeatedly rebuffed efforts from journalists to investigate comment fraud, the new Congress could subpoena evidence, such as the IP addresses of fraudulent comments. Finish the story here: Inside House Democrats’ plans to investigate the FCC and net neutrality