When the Department of Transportation (DOT) in early October asked for the public's help with identifying regulations that should be repealed, replaced or suspended, it didn't expect to be inundated by “bots.”
Federal agencies are used to receiving large numbers of comments from people who are part of well-organized, grassroots write-in campaigns, but this time it was different. Instead of responses from real people concerned about a particular issue, internet robots or “bots,” inundated DOT's website with the exact same wording showing support for keeping the pending mandate imposing electronic logging devices (ELDs) on trucking companies and truck drivers on track.
In fact, 477 comments, or about one-third of the 1,483 responses that DOT received by November 1, contained the following message:
The ELD rule should proceed as planned this December. The rule is not a change to hours of service, it's simply a change in how professional drivers record hours of service. Delaying the ELD rule will endorse drivers to operate outside of their current hours of service, and that is simply not safe to the motoring public. The industry needs to embrace legal and safe operations with ELD use. This issue has been legislated, promulgated, and litigated. The time to move forward is now.
Another dozen or so comments were so closely worded as to be almost identical.
“Bots” are actually software – sometimes called spiders or crawlers – that can be used to perform repetitive tasks such as indexing a search or filling out on-line forms like those found in the DOT comment web page.
A DOT official involved in the proposal would not discuss particular responses until they studied the comments. (The comment period has been extended from November 1 to December 1.) "We will explain later how we will evaluate the comments - their volume and relevance," the official added.
The official did note, however, that some agency staffers were taken aback that of all the regulations imposed upon the transportation industry – not just trucking – that almost all of the responses from bots and real commenters focused on ELDs.
"Clearly, it's on people's minds," the official noted, with only a smattering of comments discussed air travel issues.
With few exceptions, federal agencies and members of Congress dismiss write-in campaigns as nothing more than public relations ploys. Lawmakers and regulators are more swayed by legitimate and personal comments from constituents, according to many Washington lobbyists.
"People do it [write-in campaigns] because a lobbying group or whoever is leading their grassroots campaign gives them [stakeholders] a boilerplate message. All they simply do is cut and paste. They may change a few words around here or there, but the key points are exactly the same," explained Laurence L. Socci, who has represented clients before Congress and federal agencies for more than 20 years.
"When it goes to members of congress or policy makers in federal agencies they can recognize it,” he said. “When you see 300 comments that are exactly alike you know where they came from. They are less accepted and agencies give them less credit than those from somebody who they can tell took the time to understand the issue and work through it."
Added Socci: "If you've been around a while and understand how the system really operates then you know that boilerplate doesn't work. Policy makers and the agency folks don't give high regard to them."
If the strategy doesn't work, why would lobbyists or others employ bots?
"I don't think that a person who is actually working for an agency or an in-house person would do something like that [bot responses] but an outside consultant may,” he said. “You take the money, show that you tried to do something and then when it doesn't work say, 'Oh, well I tried my best.'"
Aside from blatantly ripping off clients, Socci and others suggested that the bot perpetrators in this instance may have simply been “rookies” to Washington politics and dazzled by the high tech nature of this effort.
Kevin O'Neill, partner at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, an international law firm based in Washington, D.C., that’s involved in government affairs offered another explanation for write-in campaigns.
He suggested that a small, special interest group can use their “cut-and-paste” messages as a way to show an agency that they have power to mobilize their members.
"It allows them to say 'look how big we are. Look at all the influence we have. We can generate this kind of response. You should meet with us the next time we want to meet with you.' It's all part of a circular effort to build the organization's credibility inside the agency that they care to influence," O'Neill explained.
Internally, the group also can use the 'pull' they seem to have to raise funds from existing members and to entice potential members to join, he said.
Those involved in helping legitimate constituents construct comments for public agencies say that those using bots make up names to go with boilerplate comments.
On the DOT website, commenters were not required to identify themselves, their cities, or companies. They could even list their name as “anonymous.” A random check of names offering the above boilerplate did not reveal any real people who commented on this docket.
DOT is not the only agency to have experienced a bot attack after soliciting comments. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in a request for public comments about net neutrality, found itself deluged this past summer by 22 million responses, about 80% of which were determined to have been sent by bots including those sent after the deadline.
Who launched this bot attack on DOT? Nobody has come forward in public to claim it. However, an internet search of the bot message found the same wording in both the last lines of the boilerplate and parts of a speech given by Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) trade group during its Management Conference & Exhibition in Orlando this past October.
Addressing the audience, Spear said of ELDs: "This issue has been legislated, promulgated, and litigated. The time to move forward is now." When asked about the same wording appearing in the last part of the bot message and Spear's speech, Sean McNally, ATA’s vice president of public affairs and press secretary responded by email: "ATA, as part of our efforts to keep our members informed about issues that affect their businesses, alerted them to the Department of Transportation’s request for comment and information on their ongoing regulatory review efforts. We did not provide scripted or prepared comments for their use.”