Millions of People Post Comments on Federal Regulations. Many Are Fake.

A Wall Street Journal investigation uncovered thousands of fraudulent posts on agencies’ dockets, in hot-button areas such as net neutrality and payday lending

A comment posted on the Federal Communications Commission’s public docket endorses a Trump-administration plan to repeal a “net neutrality” policy requiring internet providers to treat all web traffic the same.
Calling the old Obama-era policy an “exploitation of the open Internet,” the comment was posted on June 2 by Donna Duthie of Lake Bluff, Ill.

It’s a fake. Ms. Duthie died 12 years ago.

The comment filed under Donna Duthie’s name, with some details redacted by The Wall Street Journal.

The Wall Street Journal has uncovered thousands of other fraudulent comments on regulatory dockets at federal agencies, some using what appear to be stolen identities posted by computers programmed to pile comments onto the dockets.

Reports earlier this year of fraudulent comments on the FCC docket prompted the Journal to investigate the phenomenon there and at other federal agencies. After sending surveys to nearly 1 million people—predominantly from the FCC docket—the Journal found a much wider problem than previously reported, including nearly 7,800 people who told the Journal comments posted on federal dockets in their names were fakes.

The Journal found instances of fakes that favored antiregulation stances but also comments mirroring consumer-groups’ pro-regulation talking points, posted without permission of people whose names were on them.

‘It makes me feel like our democracy is broken,’ says Jack Hirsch, whose name was used on a fake submission to the FCC. PHOTO: ERIC KAYNE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Such distortions, often unknown even to the agencies involved, cut against an important element of democracy, the public’s ability to participate in federal rule-making. The public-comment process, mandated by law, can influence outcomes of regulations affecting millions.

It is a federal felony to knowingly make false, fictitious or fraudulent statements to a U.S. agency.

The scope of the fake comments is evident on the FCC website in 818,000 identical postings backing its new internet policy. The agency is expected on Thursday to roll back President Barack Obama’s 2015 rules, which telecommunication companies have called onerous. Consumer groups and Internet giants such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. back the Obama rules and have fought efforts by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to nix them.

Read more of this Wall Street Journal article by James V. Grimaldi and Paul Overberg by clicking here.

Photo: The Wall Street Journal