GSA Adopts Portman, Carper Recommendations to Improve Online Regulatory Comment Systems

WASHINGTON, DC – Sixteen months after U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-DE), then the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), released a bipartisan report that documented abuses of the federal government’s online regulatory comment systems and the government’s lack of sufficient response to those abuses, the General Services Administration (GSA) announced that it is adopting many of the recommendations made in the report. The bipartisan PSI report found that federal agencies did not have a means to prevent people from using false identities to post comments or using bots to facilitate abusive mass comment campaigns to overwhelm comment systems or generate the appearance of a grassroots response to a proposed regulation. The report recommended implementing CAPTCHA-like technologies on regulatory comment systems and developing ways to prevent people from submitting comments under false identities. GSA announced it is implementing reCAPTCHA and an Application Programming Interface to increase security around large comment campaigns. 

“I am pleased that GSA is implementing the recommendations we made in our bipartisan PSI report in 2019 to improve,” said Senator Portman. “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 the best information possible when issuing regulations that implement federal laws. It is important for Americans to have faith that the regulatory notice and comment process incorporates legitimate feedback about proposed rules and does not take into account disinformation. It is also important for our regulatory agencies to use their resources effectively to review concerns, evidence, and arguments from real human beings, rather than spend their time and money sifting through abusive submissions.”

“GSA’s move to implement the bipartisan recommendations Senator Portman and I laid out in our PSI report to improve marks a significant step towards protecting the integrity of the comment process and ensuring it works in the public’s best interest,” said Senator Carper. “Public comment periods are crucial to making sure that those most 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 and informed policies. Giving Americans the ability to have their voices heard in Washington is integral to our democracy, but for far too long, bad actors have overwhelmed the agencies with fake and irrelevant comments, making it difficult for substantive and relevant information from the public to get to decision makers.  With these new GSA policies in place, the public will now have the opportunity to more efficiently take part in the comment process and have faith that their voices are being heard.”

NOTE: 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 Federal Communications Commission (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