Ajit Pai questioned by senator about FCC’s debunked DDoS claims

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) grilled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday about the agency’s insistence that a distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attack occurred ahead of its controversial net neutrality vote last year.

Until last week, the FCC had claimed it was subjected to a DDoS attack that crashed its public comment system shortly after Last Week Tonight host John Oliver called on his viewers to voice their support for net neutrality protections before the FCC voted to rescind those rules.

At the time, internet rights groups challenged the validity of the claim.

The agency’s Inspector General found that no DDoS attack occurred in a report released earlier this month. Pai blamed the agency’s former chief information officer for providing “inaccurate information” about the alleged DDoS attack.

When pressed about it by Schatz, Pai said he was following the Inspector General’s request that he not speak about the findings, but he said he had “doubts” that there was an attack.

“Senator, I did have doubts, which is why I asked our chief of staff, who then asked the CIO explicitly, ‘Is this the result of John Oliver’s viewers?’” Pai said. “He said, and I quote, ‘We are 99 percent confident this was external folks deliberately trying to tie up the server… this was definitely high traffic targeting ECFS to make it appear unresponsive to others.’

The FCC chairman said he had meetings with “certain IT staff” where he asked if they were confident a DDoS attack occurred.

In response, Schatz said the “battle” around net neutrality and the questioning of the legitimacy of “participation of the public” in that debate should have prompted Pai to raise his doubts about such an attack occurring.

Pai said he was following the Inspector General’s request not to “not say anything to anyone,” adding that he wanted to it to come out because it “vindicated” the FCC.

“It was very hard to stay too quiet. We wanted the story to get out, not only because it vindicated what we had been saying—that we relied on the chief information officer’s representations—but also because otherwise, we knew that members of this committee… would think ‘Well, he knew something was wrong but he didn’t tell us about it,’” Pai said.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel had a different view in her opening remarks to Thursday’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

“Our claim that the agency suffered a Distributed Denial of Service Attack following John Oliver’s report on our net neutrality plans was not credible, as demonstrated by last week’s report from the FCC Inspector General,” her remarks read.

Pro-net neutrality advocates were not satisfied with the chairman’s response.

“When pressed on exactly how long he knew the FCC’s alleged cyber attack was fake, Pai shrugged and said his hands were tied. Sorry Chairman Pai, but refusing to take responsibility doesn’t cut it for us or the American people you serve,” Fight for the Future’s Executive Director Sarah Roth-Gaudette said in a statement. “Today Pai admitted he knew that the alleged cyber attack was bogus months ago. No matter which side of the aisle you’re on, you should be completely outraged. We provided the FCC with proof that the DDoS attack was totally made up months ago, yet the agency still lied to Congress and failed to escalate the issue to the proper authorities.”