FCC to pay journalist $43K in net neutrality records case

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week agreed to pay a journalist $43,000 to settle a lawsuit over the agency's decision to withhold records about fake comments posted to its website.

The FCC on Wednesday settled the lawsuit with freelance reporter Jason Prechtel, who sued two years ago after the FCC did not fulfill his documents request.

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Prechtel in 2017 submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking details about suspicious comments on the FCC's website. The comments, which have been the subject of significant scrutiny, appeared when the agency was seeking to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules.

When the FCC did not respond to his FOIA request, Prechtel sued.

The FCC in the settlement this week did not admit wrongdoing, but agreed to pay Prechtel's legal fees.

"After a year and a half of litigation and a court order requiring production of requested records, FCC agreed to pay $43,077.80 to wrap up the case,” Prechtel's attorney, Joshua Burday, told Gizmodo. “This is a good reminder that you don’t need to be able to afford a lawyer to exercise your FOIA rights.”

Prechtel obtained the information he was seeking through the lawsuit, and the FCC data formed the basis of his Gizmodo article last month that said investigators were looking, among other places, at the owner of a Washington, D.C., publication with an advocacy arm as part of the probe into who posted the fake comments.

New York investigators and the Justice Department are both looking into the 23 million public comments posted when the FCC proposed rolling back the Obama-era net neutrality rules in 2017. About 800,000 of the comments were unique, and 99.7 percent of those were in favor of maintaining net neutrality, according to subsequent studies of the data.

Investigators are looking into whether outside groups sought to take advantage of the "notice and comment" process, during which federal agencies are required to obtain outside input whenever they propose a new rule.