36,000 Uses of Dirty Words Have Senate Taking Soap to Comments (2)

Oct. 24, 2019, 2:54 PMUpdated: Oct. 24, 2019, 7:22 PM

Lawmakers are giving a – insert cussword here – about the language people are using in public comments to federal agencies.

After finding more than 36,000 examples of f**k and s**t just on the Federal Communications Commission’s Electronic Comment Filing System, a Senate subcommittee advised it and other agencies to clean up at least some of comedian George Carlin’s famous seven dirty words.

The Securities and Exchange Commission and Commerce Department also had instances of swear words in their public comment pages, according to an Oct. 24 report from the Homeland Security and Government Affairs investigations subcommittee, which held a hearing on its findings today. Regulations.gov, which most agencies use for comments, had only 31 instances of f**k and 84 cases of s**t, the report said.

“The systems are making extraordinarily profane content widely available,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the subcommittee’s chairman, said in a statement. “And the volume of irrelevant and abusive comments in some cases drowns out the substantive, significant comments that could make the regulations better.”

Profane language is just one of the new issues that federal regulators are grappling with in the e-rulemaking era. The legitimacy of mass campaigns, identity theft, and use of bots are others.

The majority of public comments are filed electronically to Regulations.gov, which as of Oct. 1 is managed by the General Services Administration. GSA is currently exploring ways to improve agency practices for data standards, quality, and governance, said Elizabeth Angerman, principal deputy associate administrator at GSA.

Senators also expressed concerns about mass mail campaigns, or large volumes of virtually identical comments often made in support or opposition to a rule.

“I have no issue with that,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), chair of the regulatory subcommittee. “That’s a beneficial thing that’s always been around since the beginning of our republic,” he said.

Bots Aren’t Inherently Bad

In terms of bots sending mass comments, Portman suggested Captcha technology to verify a comment is coming from a human. Captcha programs screen out bots with challenge-response tests—like a visual word verification test in which users are asked to type out a series of letters or an alphanumeric string.

The FCC is considering Captcha, yet bots aren’t always inherently nefarious, said Ashley Boizelle, deputy general counsel at the FCC.

“Nonetheless, we agree that there is an opportunity for significant abuse and mischief, and we are exploring ways to limit bot activity on our dockets,” Boizelle said. “In addition to Captcha, we also are exploring whether to eliminate an open application programming interface which we use to allow the submission of mass comments from entities like grassroots organizations.”

The challenge is how to sort public comments from those who want to express an opinion and those who have ideas about improving a rule. A comment is not a “vote,” Lankford said.

“I think the agencies in an ideal world are already striving to do that—to try to clearly identify those that are part of the mass mailing campaigns, for whatever legitimate reason, from the individual, here are the insights I want to provide kind of comments,” said Dominic Mancini, acting director of the regulatory affairs office at the Office of Management and Budget.

But enhancements to the public comment system are possible, Mancini said.

Among agencies there are dozens of different approaches to these various problems, Portman said. Consistency, cooperation, and best practices should be shared, he said, asking the OMB for legislative ideas.

(Adds testimony from hearing.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew Ramonas in Washington at aramonas@bloomberglaw.com; Cheryl Bolen in Washington at cbolen@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Ferullo at mferullo@bloomberglaw.com; Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com

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