Happy Birthday FOIA


Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News reminds us that Friday July 4th is the 42nd anniversary of Lyndon Johnson signing the Freedom of Information Act into law.  Interesting, but frankly, FOIA hasn’t aged well.  Meant to be “Democracy’s X-Ray,” allowing journalists and other citizens to ferret out waste, fraud, abuse and corruption the reality is that FOIA plays into the notion that government shouldn’t automatically provide information. I think it should.

This spring, I wrote an essay The Merciful Death of the Freedom of Information Act and the Birth of True Government Transparency: A Short History that was published in Rebooting Democracy, a compendium of some 44 essays, was released last month at the Personal Democracy Forum conference.  In the essay I keyed off a Jeff Jarvis blog post where he called for the abolition of FOIA. “Why should we be asking for information about and from our government?” he wrote. “The government should have to ask to keep things from us…Government information-every act of government on our behalf-should be free by default.” Digital technology and web-based tools now allow business transactions to be digitally captured, stored, and opened to search and analysis, he argued. This was not possible when the information was stored on paper in file cabinets.

But to get there, there has to be a sea change in the attitude of government. I think we are moving in the right direction but it will take time. But citizens are getting used to getting more information via the Internet and it makes them want more.

But  until we get government to see that it’s their responsibility to make our information proactively available, there are those who are heroically trying to keep FOIA breathing. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy was the lead sponsor of the Open Government Act of 2007, the first FOIA reform in over a decade.  Despite signing the reform, President Bush quickly attempted to neuter the law by not funding the FOI ombudsman office, the reform’s key provision. But Leahy has refused to give up. Last month, he lead a successful effort in the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies to reject Bush’s attempt at gutting the law.  Leahy and Sen. John Cornyn have introduced the Open FOIA Act, S.2746, which they hope will provide safeguards against “the growing trend

of FOIA exemptions, and would make all FOIA exemptions clear and unambiguous, and vigorously debated, before they are enacted into law,” as Leahy said in a statement.

Another hopeful FOIA development occurred far from Capitol Hill.  Our UK-based friends at MySociety.org are building WhatDoTheyKnow?, a searchable, readable, googlable user-created archive of FOI requests and their responses.  The site allows British citizens to find out inside information about what the UK government is doing. Their site says that it’s a work in progress and not quite finished, but it is working and they wanted to encourage citizens to start using it and so they are. The idea is that users choose the public authority that they would like information from, then at the site they write a brief post about what they want to know. The site then sends the request to the public authority. If the official responds it is recorded on the site for anyone to see.  No responses are recorded as well. Sunlight could do something like this too, if our government provided electronic responses to FOIA request. Alas, for the vast majority, they do not.