Debating FOIA reform in the US


While Italy struggles to introduce “right to know” data act along the lines of similar laws in Anglo-Saxon countries, a bill aimed at speeding and broadening the disclosure of information under the Freedom of Information Act passed the US House of Representatives on 11 January 2016.

The FOIA Oversight and Implementation ACT (H.R. 653) amends the Freedom of Information Act to provide the public with greater access to information disclosable under such Act. The legislation was approved on an expedited basis at the urging of House Oversight Committee which released a report highlighting unnecessary complications, misapplication of the law, and extensive delays in the FOIA process.

Among other measures, the bill require the government to create a single online portal to submit and track requests to any government agency. It also limits exemptions and creates accountability for exemption decisions to be monitored by multiple compliance reviews as well as increasing forms of proactive disclosure of records.

The bill has been supported by non-governmental organizations calling for a comprehensive FOIA reform by its 50th anniversary in July 2016. NGOs object, however, to the last-minute provisions which exempted the Intelligence Community agencies from certain amendments.

Moreover, as pointed out by the New York Times, the bill is not expected to fully address a complaint by some open records advocates about corporations that overwhelm agencies with document requests and then resell the documents to various industries. A recent study by Margaret Kwoka (University of Denver) on the commercial use of FOIA found that information resellers are some of the most frequent FOIA requesters receiving in essence a substantial subsidy without corresponding any public good, all while draining agency resources that might otherwise be used to respond to FOIA requests that serve its central oversight and accountability aims.

As a remedy, this study  proposes a targeted and aggressive policy of requiring government agencies to affirmatively disclose sets of records that are routinely the subject of FOIA requests — a surprisingly large number of the documents sought by commercial requesters. Proactive transparency is one of the measure introduced by the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act which requires agencies to make available online any record requested three or more times.

(Fabrizio Di Mascio)

Credits photo: justgrimes CC BY-SA 2.0