The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Monday said that a cyberattack on its comment system that it claimed had taken place last year never actually happened.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued a statement regarding the Office of Inspector General’s independent investigation into the alleged incident last year involving the agency's Electronic Comment Filing System.
“For several months, my office has been aware of and cooperating with the Office of Inspector General’s independent investigation into the incident involving the FCC’s ECFS that took place on May 7-8, 2017,” Pai said in the statement.
“The Inspector General’s office asked my office not to discuss this investigation while it was ongoing so as not to jeopardize it, and my office has accommodated that request.”
Pai said in the statement he was "deeply disappointed" that the FCC’s former chief information officer (CIO), whom he pointed out was hired by the prior administration and is no longer with the agency. Pai said the former CIO provided "inaccurate information about this incident to me, my office, Congress, and the American people."
"I’m also 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," Pai continued.
The supposed cyberattack had become a protracted issue over the last year for the agency.
Its public comment filing system crashed after HBO late-night TV host John Oliver encouraged his viewers to flood the site with pro-net neutrality comments in May.
At the time, observers thought this was because of the volume of comments rushing in from viewers of Oliver’s show, “Last Week Tonight,” but the FCC attributed it to a cyberattack.
This was contested by the agency’s critics, and FCC emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Gizmodo in August 2017 regarding a similar incident in 2014 cast doubt on the cyberattack ever occurring.
Skeptics of the now debunked cyberattack have long criticized it as a means that the agency used to undermine the outpouring of support for net neutrality rules, after Oliver’s pushes.
Pai though, who led the charge to scrap net neutrality rules, said on Monday that he was not aware that the attack was fabricated.
"I’m pleased that 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 in a statement.
"Indeed, as the report documents, on the morning of May 8, it was the former CIO who 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,’ " Pai went on to say in his statement.
"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 said.
Ali Breland contributed.
Updated: 6:40 p.m.