The rotten hubris that is the Trump administraton is in full bloom at the FCC. It began when its leadership refused to defend core communications principles like free speech and press and flourished when they swore fealty to hypercapitalism and preemptively demonized those who may oppose their policy agenda. Now the dirty tricks have arrived. It’s all so far outside the already-troublesome norm of how media policy is made as to be head-spinning.
Let’s begin with the agency’s effort to repeal network neutrality regulations. An issue that’s overly complicated in most news coverage, the nation turns to John Oliver to make sense of it. He’s done this twice now – most recently in May, and as before his coverage inspired millions to visit the FCC’s public-comment site and make their thoughts known on the issue.
The first time, the public response in favor of net neutrality was so overwhelming that it crashed the FCC’s servers. This time, the system went down again…but the FCC claims that it was due to a malicious attack of unknown origin. According to (now-gone) Chief Information Officer David Bray, as Oliver’s latest segment went to air, “the FCC was subject to multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDos). These were deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic. . .[they] were not attempting to file comments themselves; rather they made it difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC.”
Despite the disruption, more than 16 million comments have been filed in the up-is-down “Restoring Internet Freedom” proceeding (the comment-window is open until mid-August). However, not everyone is buying the FCC’s statement, in large part because the agency refuses to release any evidence it has that such an attack even occurred. It has even stymied Freedom of Information Act requests trying to get to the bottom of this very simple question (no surprise there).
Now add to the mix an army of spambots – again, origin unknown – who are flooding the FCC’s comment system with anti-net neutrality filings, and perniciously using the names of actual people without their knowledge to create an aura of legitimacy about them. Despite their openly fraudulent nature, Chairman Ajit Pai has indicated that the agency will assign them equivalent legitimacy as comments tendered by actual members of the public.
Chairman Pai has responded to all of this with a ham-handed charm offensive, the latest installment being a ripoff of Jimmy Kimmel’s “Mean Tweets” segment in which Pai tangentially responds to (and deflects from) the issues raised by Oliver and proponents of network neutrality more broadly. Astroturf’s long been a problem in communications policymaking, and we’re sure to see more of it as this issue and others play out – like a right-wing advocacy group attempting to preemptively smear all pro-net neutrality comments as “meaningless.”
That’s just a synopsis of the mis/disinformation campaigns going down in cyberspace; at the FCC’s own headquarters, free speech and press are now being actively repressed. In March, members of the public attempted to wear pro-net neutrality shirts at the Commission’s monthly meeting. They were cornered by agency security and told to turn their shirts inside-out or leave the premises.
Then in May, the chairman of the National Press Club’s Press Freedom Team was body-checked by the FCC’s chief of security, Fred Bucher, for trying to ask Commissioner Michael O’Rielly a question in a hallway following a press conference. It’s the second time that Bucher’s attempted to intimidate journalists covering the agency – last summer he revoked another reporter’s press credentials after he interviewed a protester attending an FCC meeting. (At a similar event in May, the right-wing actually attempted to infiltrate and corrupt it.)
This intimidation sparked bipartisan outcry; the FCC and Commissioner O’Rielly have since tepidly apologized for the dust-up, but claimed that “the FCC was on heightened alert” that day “based on several threats.” Bucher himself – who, it bears repeating, is not just some “guard” but the FCC’s chief of security – remains mum.
It’s much more chilling when put into a larger context which includes recent developments such as the Senate temporarily banning the practice of journalists interviewing lawmakers in the halls of the Capitol, Montana’s newest Representative getting a deferred sentence and community service for body-slamming a reporter attempting to ask a question on health care, and the Department of Justice’s preparations to launch a war on leakers and whistleblowers.
Keep in mind that all of this is going down at one quasi-obscure regulatory agency, who’s got fingers in pies far beyond just one internet issue. Now that all five Commissioners’ seats have been filled, we can expect the regulatory tempo to quicken.
The Trump administration has many tentatcles, all of whom are sniping at the press and public in ways both propagandistic and authoritarian to some demonstrable degree. That the FCC seems to be at the tip of the spear in this regard is beyond disturbing and does not bode well for communications policymaking in the public interest.