Appropriately, on July 4th this year, the United States Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) celebrated the 50th anniversary of its signing. Since its inception, FOIA has made government information much more transparent to the public and has changed citizen's’ relationship with their governments. FOIA has not affected just federal agencies either; all fifty states have released public information as a result of FOIA.
With new advances in technology and the nature of government information, many elements of FOIA become outdated and irrelevant. In an effort to bring FOIA up to the standards of the 21st Century, on June 30th President Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. The Act is otherwise known as Senate Bill 337, being approved first by the Senate in March. The new act makes several reforms to the FOIA, which are described below.
The FOIA Improvement Act limits what information an agency can reasonably withhold, to those in which “disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption” or is prohibited by law. This grants the public much greater access to information than was possible previously.
The way in which citizens can access the information has also been amended to keep in line with 21st Century standards. Records must be available in electronic format, including raw statistical data in each report. Further, the records must be made available without charge, license or registration, in a searchable format, and in a format that may be downloaded in bulk. Finally, any records requested successfully three or more times must be published online.
Before the FOIA Improvement Act, some of the biggest problems of FOIA were the fees and charges with requesting information. The FOIA Improvement Act limits agencies’ ability to charge fees for duplicating and searching for records when they fail to meet deadlines for responding to requests.
Finally, the Act requires the Office of Management and Budget to oversee the creation of a government-wide system for submitting requests online. The new system would standardize requests onto a single platform, replacing each agency’s preferred method for submitting requests. In the search for a new system, the Office of Management and Budget need not look any further than OpenRecord.
The FOIA Improvement Act comes after an increasing number of FOIA lawsuits during the Obama administration, despite Obama’s dedication to increasing the transparency of government records since his first day in office.
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