Citing profanity, impersonations, and spam, a bipartisan group of senators has called on the government to fix the way federal agencies solicit public comments on proposed regulations.
For a hearing of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, ranking member Sen. Tom Carper drew attention to a recent BuzzFeed News investigation that showed that the names and personal information of more than a million people were misappropriated in a secretive campaign to influence the Federal Communications Commission’s “net neutrality” rules in 2017.
The vulnerability of the online comment system is “extremely troubling,” he said in a written opening statement: “Our constituents deserve to know that agency rulemakings – whether they agree with the final decision or not – have been conducted with their interests in mind, not those of well-funded groups or hackers seeking to make mischief.”
In an accompanying report, the subcommittee, which also cited findings by the Wall Street Journal and the Pew Research Center, additionally criticized the government for allowing spam, profanity, and threatening language to be published through its online commenting systems.
“The federal agencies that host these platforms have not yet found ways to cope with these abuses, which reduces the effectiveness of the notice-and-comment process; costs taxpayer funds to mitigate; allows identity theft-related crimes to go unaddressed; and leaves the rulemaking process vulnerable to disruptive activity,” the report said.
The subcommittee also found that the “FCC’s process for addressing comments submitted under false identities potentially causes additional harm to victims of identity theft and the comment process as a whole.”
Ashley Boizelle, deputy general counsel for the FCC, told senators that the agency focuses on the “substance” of comments it receives — not the identities of the writers or the number of posts — and that the agency has “launched a fulsome review to overhaul” its commenting system.
In his statement, Carper wrote that he hopes “the attention that’s been called to this issue in recent months will result in consequences for anyone found to have improperly interfered in agency rulemakings. I think that will send an important message to others that the kind of fraud BuzzFeed and others have reported on will not be tolerated.”