FCC helps pro-net neutrality groups, rebuffs transparency requests by conservative groups

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Numerous Freedom of Information Act requests made by conservative groups pertaining to the influence of lobbyists on net neutrality policy were continually rebuffed by the FCC throughout 2011, The Daily Caller has learned.

Net neutrality, a regulatory policy passed by the FCC in December 2010, governs the traffic management policies of Internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. The decision to pass net neutrality came at a time when the FCC was being lobbied extensively by so-called progressive public interest groups whose policy agendas matched those of giant corporations like Google and Netflix.

TheDC previously reported on the extensive influence and reach of such groups in the Obama administration, and their ties to Google and other corporations, with regard to the passage of net neutrality.

In one case, the FCC fulfilled a request made by conservative government watchdog group Americans for Limited Government for “records pertaining to communications to or from any Commissioner and nine named individuals associated with Google, Inc. on the topic of net neutrality” almost a year after the original request was made in December 2010. But even then, the agency only provided three brief documents to the organization.

The FCC also rejected requests for a fee waiver for a FOIA request made by the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) — beginning with communications dating back to November 2009 — seeking information about the influence of these same public interest groups on the creation of OpenInternet.gov, a website created by the FCC to facilitate public discussion about net neutrality, according to documents publicly available in the FCC’s website.

The FCC’s Office of General Counsel rejected NLPC’s request for a fee waiver on the grounds that NLPC did not provide any “basis for this assertion,” and concluded that “Mere speculation that the requested material might disclose a matter of public interest is insufficient to satisfy NLPC’s statutory burden in establishing its entitlement to a fee waiver.”

The FCC’s transparency process is, however, not always a slow one: A similar request pertaining to Rupert Murdoch’s influence in the government, for example, was quickly determined by the FCC to be in the public interest.

In between the requests made by NLPC and ALG, the FCC granted the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s expedited FOIA request for documents on Murdoch. CREW — a group funded in part through the philanthropy of left-wing billionaire investor George Soros — obtained 233 pages of records dating from 2006 on Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. media empire, according to documents available on CREW’s Scribd account.

The FCC’s response — expedited in under 30 days from the original request made in July 2011 — included correspondence about News Corp.’s acquisition of Dow Jones & Co., the parent company of The Wall Street Journal, and News Corp.’s transfer of its control of Direct TV to Liberty Media Corporation.

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell dissented from the decision to not grant the fee waiver to NLPC.

“The Order’s outcome turns, essentially, on a determination that the requester was not specific enough about what it expected to find or how that information, if found, would contribute to the public’s understanding of FCC operations,” wrote McDowell.

“This result is troubling in several respects,” wrote McDowell. “Not the least of these is that the Order puts the Commission in the constitutionally awkward position of deciding whether the subject of a FOIA request is one of ‘wide public attention’ – i.e., newsworthy – or not.”

Florida Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart’s office found that the FCC had a higher FOIA denial rate than the CIA for requests “not reasonably described.”

NLPC chairman Kenneth Boehm told TheDC that it has successfully filed thousands of FOIA requests over the years.

“The results have been used to expose corruption of all kinds, force the resignation of unethical officials and let the public better know what their government is up to,” said Boehm.

“The Federal Communications Commission’s denial of our FOIA fee waiver request used a highly arbitrary standard that is inconsistent with the openness required by the Freedom of Information Act,” said Boehm. “The Obama FCC has one of the worst FOIA records in the executive branch.”

The FCC did not respond to TheDC’s requests for comment.

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