Happy Birthday FOIA: Freedom of information’s future

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This fourth of July marks the 45th anniversary America’s freedom of information law. FOIA transformed our world by giving teeth to the public’s right to know. It made government prove why public information shouldn’t be disclosed, instead of forcing people to justify why it should be. The internet age has brought another revolution, transforming how we expect information will be available to us. But our freedom of information laws have slowly calcified through a combination of inertia, bureaucratic reluctance, and lack of funding.

Just as FOIA of the 1960s embraced disclosure upon demand, it’s time to reinvent our freedom of information laws for the internet age and embrace affirmative disclosure — where government information is routinely published online, in real time, and in machine readable formats.

We have already seen some baby-steps in this direction. For example:

  • The 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments (or E-FOIA) required agencies to publish records that they expected would be the subject of multiple requests in an “electronic reading room,” and instructed agencies to make records available in electronic format when requested.
  • The Obama Administration created Data.gov, an online repository of “high value, machine readable” datasets generated by the Executive branch, and launched the Open Government Directive, which (among other things) encouraged agencies to release more information to the public. (These initiatives have been subject to significant funding cuts.)
  • The Office of Government Information Services Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice* recently launched FOIA.gov, a one-stop shop to see how well agencies are staying on top of their FOIA requests.
  • Nearly all agencies have websites where limited information is disclosed about their operations and activities.

The scope of the public access is much larger than these initiatives can address. The public’s information needs spans the scope of government activity, from census data to spending data, from policy and position papers to economist forecasts, from maps to legal information, and much more. It is worth highlighting four particularly clever ideas for next steps as examples of where things could go.

The Public Online Information Act (or POIA) is pending legislation, originally introduced by Rep. Israel and Sen. Tester, that would require executive branches agencies to publish all publicly available information in the Internet in a timely fashion and in user-friendly formats, and create an advisory committee to help develop government-wide Internet publication standards. Like FOIA, POIA allows the public to go to court if agencies fail to comply.

In the UK, the website WhatDoTheyKnow.com makes many government information requests publicly available. You submit your FOIA-like request through the website, they submit the request to the appropriate agency and publish the answer online. This reduces the number of duplicate requests while making the sum of information released available to everyone. (There’s a similar effort to crowd-source state-level freedom of information requests in the US called MuckRock. Disclosure: Sunlight gave funding to MuckRock.)

Data quality is a big deal. The ten open data principles lay out a means to evaluate the extent to which data is open and accessible to the public. Similarly, efforts like ClearSpending mash up government data to evaluate the accuracy of information reported by the government in the first place. It’s difficult for the public to make use of information that is badly formatted or inaccurately reported.

It’s not enough to make sure that the data reported by the government is accurate. We must also ensure that government identifies and reports on all the data that it has. The government must audit its holdings and build an index of what it has and who is responsible for maintaining the information. The President’s recent Memo on Regulatory Compliance, for example, addresses how private entities disclose information to the agencies that regulate them and how that data is reviewed, shared inside government, and (whenever appropriate) made available to the public.

The public’s need to access government-held information is as old as our libraries, post offices, and government publications. It’s time to make our public information available online.

* Corrected to reflect the right agency. OGIS mediates FOIA disputes and reviews agency compliance with FOI; OIP launched FOIA.gov.

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