In all the festivities surrounding the New Year’s holiday, you might have missed President Bush signing the Open Government Act of 2007 on Monday without comment, the first reform of the Freedom of Information Act in a decade. David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Center for Citizen Media, hails the act for expanding the definition of who is representative of the news media. "This change would significantly benefit bloggers and non-traditional journalists by making them eligible for reduced processing and duplication fees that are available (to members of the media)."
The Associated Press reports that the new law "is aimed at reversing an order by former Attorney General John Ashcroft in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, in which he instructed agencies to lean against releasing information when there was uncertainty about how doing so would affect national security."
(Updated: The Associated Press reported on the new law; the First Amendment Center did not issue a statement as previously reported.)
Ardia also lists other reforms brought by the legislation:
- Broadening the scope of information that can be requested by including government contracting information held by private contractors;
- Assigning public tracking numbers to all requests;
- Denying agencies that exceed the 20-day deadline for responses the right to charge requesters for search or copying costs;
- Making it easier to collect attorneys’ fees for those who must sue to force compliance with their FOIA requests; and
- Establishing an office at the National Archives to accept citizen complaints, issue opinions on requests, and foster best practices within the government.
Steven Aftergood, writing at Secrecy News, voices a tempered view of the reform, saying that the act "does not touch the root of government secrecy, namely the decision to withhold information." The reform does not impact "any of the more than one hundred statutory exemptions from disclosure under the FOIA," he writes, "and it does not address the proper scope or application of the classification system." That’s a task for another day, he adds.
David Corn at MoJo Blog agrees, saying that the reform will likely only mean more timely denials of information. "Well, at least I won’t have to wait so long to be turned down," he writes.
At least the new law doesn’t appear to make things worse. That, in and of itself, is an improvement.
Update: Patrice McDermott, Director of OpenTheGovernment.org writes that the Associated Press reports that the new law "is aimed at reversing an order by former Attorney General John Ashcroft in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, in which he instructed agencies to lean against releasing information when there was uncertainty about how doing so would affect national security."