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FCC Report Finds HBO's Oliver-Incented Deluge Crashed Agency's Electronic Comment System

The alleged cyberattack that briefly overwhelmed the FCC's Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) in early May 2017 was actually a deluge of public comments, spurred by HBO's John Oliver's call for viewers to send pro-net neutrality comments to the agency. The FCC's Office of Inspector General is completing an independent investigation of the incident, concluding that the agency's former chief information officer incorrectly told the commissioners on May 8 last year that the outage was caused by a high-volume attack by a small group of antagonists who tried to tie up the FCC server.  

Related: FCC Hit By DDoS Attacks (May 8, 2017)

FCC chairman Ajit Pai, announcing the findings on Monday, explained that "the Inspector General’s office asked my office not to discuss this investigation while it was ongoing so as not to jeopardize it."

Pai also turned the incident into a political moment, noting that the "FCC’s former chief information officer, who was hired by the prior administration and is no longer with the commission, provided inaccurate information about this incident to me, my office, Congress, and the American people."

"This is completely unacceptable," Pai added, emphasizing that he was "disappointed that some working under the former CIO apparently either disagreed with the information that he was presenting or had questions about it, yet didn’t feel comfortable communicating their concerns to me or my office."

During his May 7 Last Week Tonight show in which he discussed net neutrality, Oliver urged viewers to express their views on the topic to, which linked directly to the FCC's electronic comments site. More than a million comments poured in, causing the FCC's site to crash briefly, prompting claims that a handful of hackers had created a distributed denial of service (DDoS) barrier.

Related: John Oliver Takes on FCC's Pai, Net Neutrality (May 8, 2017)

"This report debunks the conspiracy theory that my office or I had any knowledge that the information provided by the former CIO was inaccurate and was allowing that inaccurate information to be disseminated for political purposes," Pai said.

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel immediately augmented Pai's statement, saying “The Inspector General Report tells us what we knew all along: the FCC’s claim that it was the victim of a DDoS ... is bogus."

"What happened instead is obvious—millions of Americans overwhelmed our online system because they wanted to tell us how important internet openness is to them and how distressed they were to see the FCC roll back their rights," Rosenworcel said. "It’s unfortunate that this agency’s energy and resources needed to be spent debunking this implausible claim.”

In his statement, Pai criticized "a culture... we inherited from the prior Administration... in which many members of the Commission’s career IT staff were hesitant to express disagreement with the commission’s former CIO in front of FCC management."

Pai cited the still-unreleased report as documenting that on May 8, 2017, the former CIO "informed my office that ‘some external folks attempted to send high traffic in an attempt to tie-up the server from responding to others, which unfortunately makes it appear unavailable to everyone attempting to get through the queue.’ In response, the Commission’s Chief of Staff, who works in my office, asked if the then-CIO was confident that the incident wasn’t caused by a number of individuals ‘attempting to comment at the same time ... but rather some external folks deliberately trying to tie-up the server.’ In response to this direct inquiry, the former CIO told my office: ‘Yes, we’re 99.9% confident this was external folks deliberately trying to tie-up the server to prevent others from commenting and/or create a spectacle.' "

Pai also pointed to "a flawed comment system." He vowed that the "most important question is what can be done to prevent this from happening again" and cited the report's spotlighting the need for the FCC to revamp its comment filing system.

"It has become abundantly clear that ECFS needs to be updated," he said, noting that last week Congress approved a reprogramming request that allots funding to redesign ECFS. 

Public-interest group Free Press piled on Pai after the IG report and the commissioners' responses. Free Press deputy director and senior counsel Jessica J. González said in part in a statement: “Today’s IG report exposes the Pai FCC’s general willingness to ignore logic and contradictory evidence when doing so supports his preconceived notions and political agenda. In this case, the former chief information officer’s story was obviously flawed, but Pai and his office didn’t hesitate to pass along that story and dismiss its critics. In his response to the inspector general’s report, Pai throws former CIO David Bray under the bus and tries to blame the prior administration for hiring him. But Bray worked for Pai at the time of these incidents, and later statements describing the supposedly 'voluminous documentation' for this attack came from Pai’s hand-picked spokesman. 

"Pai has a long history of misleading the public on Net Neutrality, including claiming that there was strong public support for his 2017 decision to repeal the rules, which couldn’t be further from the truth. This makes it particularly difficult to take anything he or his staff says about the Net Neutrality docket, or frankly anything at all, at face value," González said.