Senators call for new measures to validate online comments on agency proposals

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 07: Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), (L) and Chairman Rob Portman (R-OH), participate in a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on investigations examining private sector data breaches. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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Two senators have called for further efforts to validate the identities of commenters on rules proposed by agencies, based on the results of a new Government Accountability Office survey released Thursday.

GAO contacted the emails attached to comments on rules proposed by 10 agencies between 2013 and 2017 and found between 5% and 30% of repliers denied making the comments. Most commenters didn’t even provide contact emails at eight agencies.

The intervention comes after some recent rulemakings received an “extremely large” volume of comments, raising questions about who is really submitting them.

Agencies release thousands of proposed rules for public comment annually, which is why Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Tom Carper, D-Del., requested GAO’s report on identity issues back in 2018, while they were chair and ranking member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation respectively.

“[I]t’s deeply troubling that GAO’s report confirms our earlier findings that federal agencies’ websites that collect public comments about proposed regulations are susceptible to abuse by bad actors,” Carper said in a statement. “We live in a time where disinformation spreads rapidly online, and as elected officials we have a critical responsibility to ensure transparency and integrity at every point.”

Federal law doesn’t require agencies to collect information on or verify public comments on proposed rules, only consider the substance of the comment. Agencies are generally required to make those comments available online, with most using Regulations.gov or their own websites like the Federal Communication Commission’s Electronic Comment Filing System.

“Regulations.gov and other federal agency websites used to collect comments should be secure and easy to navigate, and they should clearly inform commenters how they will use their data,” Portman said in his own statement. “At the same time, people who abuse the comment process by trying to overwhelm the systems or filing comments using stolen identities should be held accountable.”

GAO recommended the FCC fully describe available public comment data, including the meaning of data elements and their limitations, to ensure users don’t draw inaccurate conclusions.

Similarly GAO recommended eight agencies using Regulations.gov work with its manager, the General Services Administration, to describe the limitations of their public comment data. Those agencies were the Bureau of Land Management, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Employee Benefits Security Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Food and Drug Administration, and Wage and Hour Division.

The agencies all “generally agreed” with the report’s findings, according to GAO.

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fake comments, Government Accountability Office (GAO), Regulations.gov, Rob Portman, Tom Carper
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