FOIAing the Trump Administration: The FCC and Net Neutrality

FOIAing the Trump Administration: The FCC and Net Neutrality

Plus, one year of the Trump administration, as told in FCC complaints

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

Ahead of the vote, we take a look at the transparency controversies surrounding Trump’s Federal Communications Commission and how FOIA requesters are contributing oversight.

You can use FOIA to hold the FCC accountable by filing a records request of your own with the agency, following MuckRock’s “FOIA the Trump Administration” project, and joining our Slack channel to share ideas and get help with your requests. If you have a Trump administration related FOIA you would like us to highlight, share it over email, Twitter, or Facebook and we may include them in the next roundup.

Seeking transparency in net neutrality deliberations

The FCC, under the leadership of Ajit Pai, is racing towards a vote on repealing net neutrality rules, despite concerns from lawmakers and law enforcement about the flawed public comment process that supposedly informed the agency’s decision to hold a vote. The FCC claimed that their site was subject to a DDoS attack during the public comment period and multiple analyses determined that most of the comments in favor of repealing net neutrality were likely faked.

The FCC has stonewalled many requests about the public comment process and now faces several FOIA lawsuits:

  • Freelance writer Jason Prechtel filed a request for information on all the bulk comment uploads made using the FCC’s API. The FCC acknowledged his request, but then proceeded to ignore it, prompting Prechtel to file suit.
  • The FCC says their site was brought down by a DDoS attack, not by a flood of pro-net neutrality comments prompted by a John Oliver segment, as some suspect. Gizmodo filed a request for the FCC’s analysis of the claimed attack and were told it doesn’t exist. BuzzFeed reporter Kevin Collier filed a FOIA lawsuit for further FCC documents on the claimed DDoS attack.
  • The FCC was sued for stalling on a request for officials’ communications with Internet service providers about Net Neutrality Rules.

A central claim Pai has made in arguing for the repeal of net neutrality rules is that they don’t address any real problems.The National Hispanic Media Coalition filed a FOIA request in May for the text of the more than 40,000 net neutrality complaints the FCC has received since the adoption of the rules, as well as ISP’s responses to the complaints.

NHMC argued that these complaints would give the public a better understanding of the impact of net neutrality regulation as the agency was asking for public comment. NHMC also asked the FCC to extend the public comment period until after it was able to comply with their FOIA, but the agency declined to do so. NHMC obtained thousands of pages of net neutrality complaints through their FOIA request, but the FCC has yet to provide some of the requested documents.

The FCC and the Trump administration’s broadcaster preferences

Excerpt from Ajit Pai’s calendar showing January 2017 meeting with Sinclair executives.

President Trump is incredibly transparent when it comes to his personal preferences in television news, but it takes FOIA to shed light on how various broadcasters are being treated by the regulators he controls, like the FCC. Sinclair, the conservative local news conglomerate, is benefiting immensely from a deregulation effort at the FCC. Documents and emails obtained through FOIA show Pai and Sinclair’s executive leadership working together closely on specific deregulation initiatives the company desires.

Trump has himself threatened to wield the power of the FCC against broadcasters he dislikes. Watchdog group American Oversight filed a request with the FCC for communications with the White House about these threats.

MuckRock requests to explore: the Trump administration in FCC complaints

MuckRock users frequently file requests for FCC complaints. Over the course of the 2016 campaign and Trump administration so far, MuckRock requests have yielded complaints about many televised political flashpoints.

Join our Slack channel to share ideas for FOIAing the Trump administration or to get help with your own requests.

Image via FCC Flickr