Digital Gov

Comment flood slams federal website

Shutterstock image (Dencg) : digital government concept.

Sometimes feds ask the American people for input and get little by way of reply. Sometimes they hear an overwhelming cacophony.

A din of sorts developed April 1 when activists helped push tens of thousands of last-minute comments on a U.S. Copyright Office request for feedback on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The nonprofit organization Fight for the Future said the website accepting comments, Regulations.gov, might have been down intermittently as a result, although the Environmental Protection Agency, which operates Regulations.gov, denied any outage.

"Regulations.gov is operating normally, and all those wishing to submit comments can do so," an EPA spokesperson told FCW on April 1. "Our staff is monitoring the site to ensure its reliability and continued operation."

The Copyright Office directed requests for comment to the EPA.

The deadline to comment on DMCA was 11:59 p.m. EDT on April 1, but many activists didn't realize they had an opportunity to give feedback until the day before.

"This clearly wasn't very widely publicized," said Evan Greer, FFTF's campaign director.

Problems with the interpretation of DMCA have long plagued Internet communities, especially on YouTube. Content owners can issue takedown notices when their copyrighted material has been uploaded by a third party, and YouTube and other hosting sites dodge legal liability by speedily complying.

But some content owners have abused the system to take down videos that fall under "fair use" exceptions (such as parodies), and YouTubers say other unscrupulous actors have issued takedown notices against material over which they have no legal claim.

It's a system in need of fixing, FFTF said. The group joined with other online activists and helped funnel tens of thousands of comments to Regulations.gov.

FFTF said the Copyright Office's DMCA issue had registered only 80 comments as of March 31. But 24 hours later, the issue had been swamped with more than 91,000 comments. Would-be commenters started getting shut out of the site by the morning of April 1, FFTF said, so the organization began saving and queuing up the comments that didn't go through.

Greer said the site eventually accepted all the comments FFTF had saved, but other commenters might have slipped through the cracks.

She added that the episode demonstrated the need for federal agencies to better publicize their requests for comment and ensure that their technological infrastructure is ready for a surge of public interest.

"A lot of people care about these issues," Greer said, "and the government needs to be prepared to hear from them."

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.


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