Carper, Portman: Bipartisan Report Highlights Abuse of Online Regulatory Comment Systems

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the Ranking Member and Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), released a new bipartisan report that documents abuses of the federal government’s online regulatory comment systems and the government’s lack of sufficient response to those abuses. When the online comment system is not safeguarded from abuse, it limits Americans’ ability to engage in the rulemaking process and provide meaningful input on proposed rules being developed by federal agencies.

The Subcommittee surveyed 14 agencies about their processes for receiving and posting comments on proposed rules and interviewed staff from 12 agencies and subagencies.  That review demonstrated that federal agencies, across administrations from both parties, have not taken sufficient action to identify or prevent the posting of fake comments on their regulatory comment system, nor do they refer such comments to law enforcement.  The Subcommittee also found that, the FCC Electronic Comment Filing System, and the Securities and Exchange Commission website play host to a significant amount of profane and abusive content.  Agencies do not have a uniform policy on such content – some post all comments, some regularly screen for profanity and sensitive information, and while some screen for such content, they do not always remove that content. 

Examples of the misuse of the online regulatory commenting system include rampant use of stolen identities to post comments on proposed regulations with no recourse for identity theft victims, more than 100,000 comments containing profanity and threats of violence, and comments designed to flood the systems, such as comments containing entire movie scripts and the text of War and Peace

“I often say that everything I do I know I can do better. When things aren’t perfect, as elected officials, we have an obligation to improve them. I can think of few more worthy causes than ensuring that the American people can more effectively make their voices heard here in Washington,” said Senator Carper. “Public comment periods are crucial to making sure that our constituents – those affected by the rules and regulations put in place by federal agencies – are able to give their input and help the federal government craft more effective, thoughtful policies. But in order to ensure that Americans can do so in a meaningful way, we must do more to protect the integrity of the comment process. My bipartisan report with Senator Portman documents the ways in which bad actors can overwhelm agencies with fake or irrelevant comments. It also highlights the vulnerabilities that interest groups or even hostile foreign governments can exploit to tilt proceedings in their favor. Our work – based on information from 14 rulemaking agencies on the technology and the procedures they use to solicit and review public comments – identifies a number of areas for improvement. I hope that our report and today’s hearing further the conversation underway about how to improve the comment process and ensure it works in the public’s interest.”

“The online comment process provides Americans with the opportunity to voice their opinions and provide meaningful input to federal agencies, while ensuring that these agencies have on the best information possible when issuing regulations that implement federal laws,” said Portman. “However, the online comment systems are too often being abused, and agencies have not taken adequate steps to address that abuse.  Victims of identity theft are being misrepresented on federal government websites, and agencies are doing little to protect them.  The systems are making extraordinarily profane content widely available.  And the volume of irrelevant and abusive comments in some cases drowns out the substantive, significant comments that could make the regulations better. I’m hopeful that this bipartisan report will start a discussion between Congress and the federal agencies about how we can make online comment systems work better both for government agencies and Americans.”

This morning, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in conjunction with the Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management Subcommittee held a hearing to review the PSI report findings, as well as recommendations from the Administrative Conference of the United States and the Government Accountability Office to improve the online commenting process.