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How to Actually Improve Public Access to Government Documents (Under the FOIA)

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When can a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request be worth millions of dollars? When it is made by an investment company hoping to gain information about potential stock purchases (and sales). A recent Wall Street Journal article details the use of FOIA requests by investment firms. These firms make document requests to ascertain potential corporate liabilities and successes, requesting, for example, documents detailing Food and Drug Administration inspections and customer complaints about consumer products and pharmaceuticals. To be clear, what the Wall Street Journal describes appears to be perfectly legal - just another form of research conducted by companies that are doing their due diligence before making large scale investments.

But it has touched a nerve within the open government community. Open government advocates argue that the investment firms are taking advantage of the FOIA in order to gain insider information that only benefits the firm and is never shared the public at large. It raises complex questions when a public interest law is used to create private gain, even though the FOIA originally accounted for commercial requesters.

Seeing potential gains in efficiency, accountability, and fairness, FOIA reformers see stories like this one as opportunities to propose new FOIA procedures to promote public access.

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