Federal agencies are flooded with thousands of public comments when they write regulations — and many of them are fake, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation.
The news outlet said it uncovered thousands of fraudulent comments on agency rulemakings. Some of them, under what appeared to be stolen identities, were posted by computers programmed to submit comments.
On the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) plan to repeal Obama’s 2015 net neutrality rules, which require internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally, the newspaper said it found 818,000 identical comment postings. The FCC rules garnered over 23.5 million comments, according to the FCC’s website.
The Wall Street Journal reached out to 2,757 people whose emails were used to post comments, and 72 percent said they didn’t post them.
Under federal law, agencies are required to accept public comments on proposed and final rules. While agencies are not allowed to base decisions on whether to issue a final rule on the number of comments for or against it, they do take the comments into consideration and sometimes adjust aspects of their proposals.
According to the Office of the Federal Register, most agencies prefer to receive comments electronically so input on a proposed rule or other document is more easily available to the public. Having electronic data, the office said in a guide to the rulemaking process, helps agencies organize the comments by subject or in other ways to help the public and the agency make more effective use of them.
The newspaper said it heard from people who found fraudulent comments posted under their names and email addresses at the FCC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
One 369-word comment supporting the Obama-era net-neutrality rules was posted on the FCC website more than 300,000 times, the report said.
The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill, but an agency spokesman told The Wall Street Journal the FCC does not have the resources to investigate every comment that’s filed.
The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which reviews and signs off on all agency rules, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen, said he's worried agencies will start limiting the public's ability to comment, given the pervasiveness of fake submissions.
"It would be damaging to democratic public participation in the rulemaking process and democratic accountability over our government if agencies restricted the ability of the public to comment during rulemakings," he said.
Narang said FCC should delay Thursday's vote on the chairman's proposal to repeal the net neutrality rules until these issues are investigated and resolved.
"I think special interests know they have not been able to demonstrate the kind of grass roots support for their position on regulatory matters when it comes to their positions," he said. "It's hard to imagine corporate special interests have not noticed that. It seems like many efforts to balance the public comment appear to be astroturf in nature."
Earlier this month, the FCC rebuffed New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s (D) call for the FCC to hold off on its vote to repeal the net neutrality rules after his office found about 1 million comments in the FCC’s net neutrality docket that may have been submitted using stolen identities.
FCC’s General Counsel Thomas Johnson in a letter said Schneiderman “offered no evidence that this activity affected the Commission’s ability to review and respond to comments in the record."
- This story was updated at 12:11 p.m.