New amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, signed into law on Friday by President Barack Obama, should help citizens find out more about the federal government.
The FOIA Improvement Act enables several benefits for those requesting federal documents:
- Online portal. The act updates FOIA for the internet age. Citizens will be able to go to one website to submit FOIA requests, simplifying and streamlining the process.
- Presumption of openness. Under the law, it is now presumed government information is open to the public unless there is a specific law that says otherwise. That will help citizens in challenging illegal public records request denials.
- Reduction of fees. The act seeks to make agencies more responsive to FOIA requests, such as by preventing them from imposing fees for producing records if the agency misses its deadline for responding.
- Limits to arbitrary denials. The changes limit the ability of the government to keep information secret under FOIA's exemption 5 regarding internal deliberations.
- Stronger citizen advocacy. The Office of Government Information Services, which helps citizens with their requests, is given stronger powers and prohibits meddling by federal agencies.
- Alternative to costly and complicated litigation. The act offers mediation services for people whose requests are disputed by an agency.
Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 so that citizens could have more access to public records and hold government accountable, but less information has become available to the public about businesses during that time, two University of Arizona researchers have found.
Jeannine Relly and Carol Schwalbe, both associate professors in the UA School of Journalism, analyzed 60 years of congressional testimony, finding that corporations lobbied to alter the scope of the FOIA.
"Though the FOIA is known as embodying the 'people's right to know,' our research found that exceptions and exemptions to the law over time often favored the industries that lobbied heavily for information to be withheld," Relly said.
Schwalbe said not receiving vital information through the press "reduces what the public learns about dangers to our health and safety, such as defective tires, bogus insurance policies, hazardous waste and nuclear radiation."
The researchers detailed their findings in an article, "How Business Lobby Networks Shaped the U.S. Freedom of Information Act: An Examination of 60 Years of Congressional Testimony," published in the academic journal Government Information Quarterly.
Relly's and Schwalbe's study began with a review of paper records of congressional testimony from the 1950s and '60s at the State Library of Arizona, then progressed to digital records of testimony from that period to this past year.
For 40 of the FOIA’s 50 years, Relly said, "We found clearly that corporations and business organizations — sometimes representing thousands of companies — pressed lawmakers in testimony and behind the scenes to advance legislation that would advantage industries and disadvantage the public."
Once the Freedom of Information Act was largely functional, some of the most prominent corporations and trade groups of the 1970s — including the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, the National Meat Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Procter & Gamble — testified before House and Senate hearings.
"It was fascinating to see how corporate and business association testimony reflected the powerful industries of the times," Schwalbe said. "Manufacturers, for example, took the lead from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. Technology companies played a key lobbying role in the 1990s and into the new millennium, along with banking and corporations representing critical infrastructure."
Relly said that, in some cases, such groups later formed the Business Coalition on Freedom of Information Act Reform to press for changes to the FOIA that would decrease public access to information.
Despite business playing a key role in setting the FOIA agenda, Relly emphasized that journalists, public interest groups and some politicians continue to play a major role in ensuring that the intent of the legislation remains.
"There is no doubt about it: High-quality journalistic and public interest work has been carried out through use of the FOIA," Relly said.
Among the many organizations that pressed for public access to information over the years in congressional testimony were political activist Ralph Nader and representatives of Public Citizen, the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the National Security Archive, Greenpeace, OpenTheGovernment.org and the Society of Professional Journalists.
The U.S. became one of the first countries in the world to adopt freedom of information legislation, but some countries with more recent laws have a greater proportion of citizens, activists, public interest groups and journalists using the legislation than the U.S. does.
"Congressional testimony does not demonstrate the extent that (U.S.) business networks influenced the scope of the legislation outside of the public domain," Relly said. "However, our findings do demonstrate how organized the business sector has been in lobbying for initiatives to advance legislation that would lead to government-held information about business activity being less available to citizens."
Among 105 countries with freedom of information laws, the U.S. ranks No. 46 this year for the FOIA's scope, access rights, procedures for requests, exceptions and refusals, sanctions and protections, appeals process, and measures to promote the legislation, according to the well-respected Global Right to Information Rating.