Responding to Mass, Computer-Generated, and Malattributed Comments
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
A number of technological and political forces have transformed the once staid and insider dominated notice-and-comment process into a forum for large scale, sometimes messy, participation in regulatory decision-making. It is not unheard of for agencies to receive millions of comments on rulemakings; often these comments are received as part of organized mass comment campaigns. In some rulemakings, questions have been raised about whether public comments were submitted under false names, or were automatically generated by computer “bot” programs. In this Article, we examine whether and to what extent such submissions are problematic and make recommendations for how rulemaking agencies should respond as a matter of law, policy, and technology.
Our overarching conclusion is that agencies should adopt both low- and high-tech measures to limit the negative impact of these sorts of comments. Mass, malattributed, and computer-generated comments, however, do not represent a crisis for the regulatory state at this time. They have not been found to violate federal law and do not generally undermine the integrity of notice-and-comment rulemaking, and we are not aware of evidence of widespread substantive harms in particular rulemaking efforts or to the rulemaking system overall. However, appropriate responses, especially those that take advantage of new technology, could reduce the cost and negative impacts of technology-enabled comments. Adopting such techniques could, for example, improve the opportunity for a diverse public to participate in the federal rulemaking process meaningfully and augment current practices with new forms of citizen engagement. Indeed, in addition to exploring how new technologies—the very same technologies that enable mass, malattributed, and computer-generated comments—can help with analyzing those comments, we also explore throughout how technology can help regulatory officials make sense of public input and draw greater insights from public comments of all kinds. Finally, other jurisdictions at the state and local level and internationally are turning to new technology to enable innovative forms of public participation, thus improving the quality of rule and policymaking. These activities illustrate hopeful opportunities for future experimentation.
This Article, based on a report commissioned by the Administrative Conference of the United States, expresses the authors’ views only and does not necessarily reflect those of the Administrative Conference or the federal government.