The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA): Background, Legislation, and Policy Issues

Source: Wendy Ginsberg, Congressional Research Service (CRS), CRS Report, R41933, January 23, 2014

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA; 5 U.S.C. §552) allows any person—individual or corporate, citizen or not—to request and obtain, without explanation or justification, existing, identifiable, and unpublished agency records on any topic. Pursuant to FOIA, the public has presumptive access to agency records unless the material falls within any of FOIA’s nine categories of exception. Disputes over the release of records requested pursuant to FOIA can be
appealed administratively, resolved through mediation, or heard in court.

FOIA is a tool of inquiry and information gathering for various sectors—including the media, businesses, scholars, attorneys, consumers, and activists. Agency responses to FOIA requests may involve a few sheets of paper, several linear feet of records, or information in an electronic format. Assembling responses requires staff time to search for records and make duplicates, among other resource commitments. Agency information management professionals are responsible for efficiently and economically responding to, or denying, FOIA requests. ….

This report provides background on FOIA, discusses the categories of records FOIA exempts from public release, and analyzes statistics on FOIA administration. The report also provides background on several legal and policy issues related to FOIA, including the release of controversial records, the growth in use of certain FOIA exemptions, and the adoption of new technologies to improve FOIA administration. The report concludes with an examination of potential FOIA-related policy options for the 113th Congress. …