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After Buffalo, Media and Tech Can’t Look Away Any Longer

This tragedy should be a catalyst to a fundamental reckoning.
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WASHINGTON — On Monday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) publicly released a report that criticizes the Trump FCC’s response to the devastating communications outages in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The GAO’s investigation was launched in response to a 2019 request by U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. In the report, the GAO found that the FCC did not adequately engage with Puerto Ricans, and that initial engagement occurred when communications were unavailable and Puerto Ricans were least able to participate.

The investigation found that the FCC’s role was “unclear in guidance published by the Department of Homeland Security” and that this guidance failed to specify FCC actions in restoring communications infrastructure. Crucially, the report notes that “this lack of clarity could have contributed to confusion and delays in the hurricane’s aftermath.” Further, the report describes how the Hurricane Recovery Task Force convened by the FCC lacked transparency, depriving the public of a “complete and accurate account of the FCC’s response efforts for Hurricane Maria.”

The agency’s lack of transparency and its undefined role in disaster response prolonged the recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria and hindered Puerto Ricans’ access to lifesaving communications.

Free Press Senior Policy Counsel Carmen Scurato made the following statement:

“Today’s report is a reminder that the Trump FCC failed to adequately inform Puerto Ricans and the public about whether it was taking the necessary steps to restore lifesaving phone and internet services. This is why it’s critical for the Biden FCC to issue a report that provides a full accounting of the agency’s actions during one of the worst disasters in our nation’s history. This information is needed to inform policies and to make sure this kind of extended communications blackout does not happen again.

“The inability to communicate contributed to the soaring death toll during the hurricane and its aftermath. The FCC’s lack of transparency deprived people on the islands of the information necessary to understand why the networks failed and hold authorities accountable for the delayed recovery efforts. This report recognizes that the FCC’s Hurricane Recovery Task Force took actions and made recommendations just beyond public view — this should be concerning to everyone invested in how the agency can better safeguard our communications infrastructure.

“In 2018, Free Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request for details about the FCC’s task force and other documents about the agency’s response after Hurricane Maria. Free Press had also long urged the full Commission to hold field hearings in Puerto Rico and give the public the opportunity to submit comments to the agency about their experiences during and after the hurricane. We also called on the agency to conduct an independent investigation to determine why it took so long to restore communications services following Hurricane Maria. The Trump FCC brushed aside each of these requests. That it took a GAO report to gain some basic information and shed light on the agency’s activities is a testament to how the FCC under Chairman Pai refused to engage in basic fact-finding.

“We’re disappointed that the GAO report does not contain much broader prescriptive recommendations that directly address the unaccountable, self-regulatory regimes overseeing network resiliency and the need for a more proactive and mandatory approach. But this was not within the purview of this investigation. While the GAO’s scope was limited, the FCC must now provide more information to the public, and consider a mandatory approach to disaster response and network resiliency.

“We call on the Biden FCC to assume a more prominent role in disaster response and we echo the previous calls of Acting FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel on the need for a new disaster-response playbook. The Commission must take long-overdue action to repair past wrongs and clear up a lot of the confusion about what happened after Hurricane Maria. And in this era of devastating climate change, it’s imperative that the agency adopt new disaster-response policies and procedures to save lives.

“We welcome the recommendation that more information be made public — especially around the Trump FCC’s Hurricane Recovery Task Force — so that we can finally have a clear accounting of what went so tragically wrong.”

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