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Inside TDV - The Data Vault Blog

What Is The Freedom of Information Act?

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With all the recent discussions in the media about government transparency and appropriate use of private channels for official communication, many concerned citizens are relying on the Freedom of Information Act to access documentation surrounding the controversy. While this powerful tool can shed light on some of the most esoteric inner works of our country’s administration, relatively few people know how it actually works.

“The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.” This definition comes straight from the official source, leaving little up to personal interpretation. Originally proposed during the 1950’s, it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that the law started to resemble the modern act seen today and became an effective avenue of inquiry for news media, private citizens, and advocacy organizations alike. FOIA gives the public the right to make a request for federal records; and all agencies are required to disclose information unless the records are protected from disclosure by any of nine specific exemptions mentioned in the act itself or one of three special law enforcement record exclusions. These are as follows:

  • Classified national defense and foreign relations information
  • Internal agency rules & practices
  • Information prohibited from disclosure by another federal law
  • Trade secrets and other confidential business information
  • Inter-agency or-intra agency communications that are protected by legal privileges
  • Personal medical files or similar documents
  • Information relating to the supervision of financial institutions
  • Geological information on wells
  • Certain records compiled for law enforcement purposes

Underneath the larger law enforcement exception, these three specific exclusions are noted:

  • Records of ongoing investigations or proceedings
  • Informant names or personal identifiers
  • Certain records maintained by the FBI

The act does not require agencies to conduct any research, analyze data, answer questions, or create new records; merely providing the raw data is sufficient to meet the specifications of the law. All requests operate under the time limit of one month (20 working days) to either be approved or denied based on one of the exceptions.

As providers in the information management field, we can see how regulations like these are very important on multiple levels. It directly affects the records keeping practices of government entities (whether it be state, local, or federal administration) hopefully ensuring that valuable information is not inadvertently destroyed or otherwise misplaced. By encouraging comprehensive techniques based on effective retention policies, average citizens can ensure that their elected representatives are truly acting in their best interests.

If you want to make a FOIA request, the process is relatively simple. Your request must be in writing (electronic or physical) and A) reasonably describe the information you seek B) comply with specific agency requirements and C) come with proof of identity. You can find a comprehensive list of where to submit information requests on this index page.

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