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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Who is making the 700,000 FOIA requests the government receives every year?

The Freedom of Information Act has been making a bit of news recently, as Congress considers proposed reforms, and the House has even passed a bill that would effectuate the most significant changes to the statute in nearly a decade. Many of the proposals are excellent, and, if enacted, would certainly strengthen the public’s right to access government records.

But a more structural problem plagues FOIA, one that I explore in depth in my forthcoming article: it was designed to perform one function and, to a large extent, it is used to serve others. What purpose was it designed to serve? Mostly journalists’ interest in reporting the news to the public. In fact, it may even be fair to say that the news media essentially drafted the law. In 1953, Harold Cross wrote a book called “The People’s Right to Know” in his capacity as an advisor to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the most prominent journalism association at the time. After documenting the patchwork of existing access laws, most of which fell woefully short of journalists’ needs, Cross called on Congress to legislate a right to access public records. Because the book garnered interest in Congress, Cross himself subsequently become the legal adviser to the special subcommittee in the House of Representatives tasked with drafting the law, and journalists mostly staffed the committee. That is, journalists were crafting the very contours of the law, not just its vision.

And the vision was equally important to Congress. The whole idea of a public records’ access law designed for journalists was that the news media could use the law to inform the public about government activities, thereby enhancing the public’s ability to participate in democratic governance and hold elected officials accountable. The legislative history of FOIA is replete with references for the need to have an informed electorate as vital to a democratic society.

The reality today, though, is that news media make up a tiny fraction of requesters – in the single digit percentages at most agencies. Journalists find the law slow in operation and the fight for access to be resource intensive. They simply don’t have the time or legal budgets to take full advantage. Nonetheless, despite the loud complaints about FOIA’s failings, the federal government now receives over 700,000 FOIA requests a year, so FOIA must be serving someone’s interests at least well enough to keep them coming back for more.

In my study, I focus on one group of these other requesters: commercial requesters. Commercial requesting has previously been poorly or only anecdotally understood, and I thus seek in my paper to document an in-depth account of how commercial interests are served by FOIA. To that end, I conducted case studies of particular agencies with significant numbers of commercial requesters whose data on FOIA usage I obtained by filing my own FOIA requests, and at each of these agencies I ended up studying, the amount of commercial requesting is very significant.

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I will leave you with those perhaps surprising statistics, and will elaborate in my next post on the various ways in which commercial entities are using FOIA as part of their profit making enterprise.

Posted by Margaret Kwoka on February 4, 2016 at 10:59 AM in Information and Technology, Law and Politics | Permalink


I don't see how you can be so dismissive of the complaints. I have a pending FOIA request to the State Department made in July 2013. It is the only FOIA request I have ever made. The law requires a response within 20 business days with 10 more days in unusual circumstances, and more time than that only in exceptional circumstances.

Of course I could sue at this point, but I'd have to pay filing fees and spend the time drafting a complaint. Refusing to follow the law except when specifically ordered to by a federal court, and then only in a specific instance, shows extreme contempt for the rule of law. And if it is a matter of resources than how come the President's budget requests don't ask for however many millions or billions of dollars it would take to comply with the law?

Posted by: Brad | Feb 4, 2016 11:12:26 AM

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