The Federal Communications Commission recently closed its record on proposed rule changes entitled “Restoring Internet Freedom,” a review of controversial network neutrality rules. The Commission received more than 10.5 million comments on its proposal. It’s time for the Commission and the broader federal government to consider how to restore freedom of thought for ordinary individuals seeking to comment on its actions.
The FCC and other federal agencies engage in many activities ranging from rule changes, to investigations, to preparing a report for Congress. Each one of these activities is a “proceeding.” Most of these proceedings are open for public comment, and most proceedings takes if months if not years to complete.
The FCC usually has more than a thousand of these proceedings each year. Most generate at most a few dozen comments. In the normal course of business, each of these comments is duly reviewed by FCC staff and properly considered under the Administrative Procedure Act. An individual’s comments need not be particularly serious or substantive to at least be reviewed, but serious comments are not only reviewed but often directly reflected in Commission documents. Individuals who choose to participate in one of these ordinary proceedings have the satisfaction of knowing that their comments are considered.
For a few proceedings, however, the Commission has in recent years been inundated with millions of Internet-driven comments. Most of these comments are identical, sometimes single sentences, often computer-generated scripts. Some are from addresses around the world. Some were invited by a late-night television host. Others pose as being submitted by individuals who, when contacted, disavow any knowledge of the submitted comments. “Restoring Internet Freedom” is one such proceeding. Only a small portion of the 10.5 million comments has substance.
There is a simple solution: charge an administrative fee for electronic comments filed at federal agencies. It need not be a large fee to reduce frivolous comments. Even a fee the equivalent to a postage stamp, 49 cents today, would substantially reduce non-serious comments. Receipts from the fee might be used to defray partially the expense of government employees responsible for reviewing electronic filings. Or the receipts could even go to the U.S. Postal Service, which is often operating at a deficit.
Abuse of federal dockets by computer-generated filings was not a problem when ordinary Americans had to submit filings on paper and affix a postage stamp to an envelope. Today, such abuse is a problem.
No doubt, naysayers will claim that the rights of ordinary Americans to petition their government would be abridged by a 49-cent electronic filing fee. Those Americans who would rather not pay an electronic filing fee could simply print their comments on paper and submit the comments through the U.S. mail, with a 49-cent postage stamp.
The rights of ordinary Americans to petition their government are diminished when millions of non-substantive comments crowd out serious comments. Serious commenters should have the satisfaction of knowing that their comments are taken seriously by agencies such as the FCC, and those who try to impede the legitimate process of government should be discouraged.