The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was put into effect by the federal government in 1966. It basically makes government information available to the general public unless it falls into one of nine statutory exemptions.

In order to understand how the FOIA can benefit your business, it might be easier to understand the types of information that can be requested versus what cannot. This will allow you to determine if seeking certain information from federal agencies will be a worthwhile or futile endeavor.

Information You Can Get

The FOIA allows you to access federal government information from a federal department. The agencies that must cooperate are:

  • Cabinet Agencies
  • Military Branches
  • Government Corporations
  • Government-Controlled Corporations
  • Independent Regulatory Agencies
  • Other Executive Branch Offices
  • Commissions

Most government agencies are required to comply with FOIA requests and provide information to requestors as long as it is not included in the exempted list below.

It is also important to note that elected government officials, including the president as well as members of the Judiciary Branch (e.g. the Department of Justice or the Supreme Court) and state and local governments, do not fall under the FOIA.

Information You Can’t Get

Below are the nine exempt categories and examples of each type of data they protect.

1. Classified Documents: Refers to any information or documents that might threaten national defense or foreign policy.

2. Internal Agency Rules: Refers to any internal agency manuals or policies that do not affect the public; for example, the sick-leave policy for a government agency.

3. Information Exempted by Another Federal Statute: Just like it sounds – if the information is considered privileged or off-limits under another federal statute, then it cannot be requested and obtained using the Freedom of Information Act. This act allows the agencies to close a “loophole” in the legislation that might have allowed businesses or individuals to circumvent other federal statutes.

4. Confidential Business Information: Refers to specific types of business information, namely that which is labeled a trade secret. When it comes to disclosing commercial, financial or business information, the decision is based on whether the knowledge is deemed privileged or confidential.

5. Internal Government Communications: Refers to any inter- or intra-agency communication that can be used by the public to further infer an agency’s decision-making or internal processes. By ensuring these communications are not allowed into the public domain, it encourages frank and fully formed discussions regarding policy, recommendations and advice among different government agencies.

6. Personal Privacy: Refers to any personal information kept in federal agency files on individuals. Corporations and other “legal persons” who are not actually human beings do not fall under this exemption. The Privacy Act of 1974 also allows for this type of protection, and in some cases, the FOIA and the PA overlap, but there isn’t really any consistency between the two. Both can be cited when making a case regarding privacy.

7. Law Enforcement Records: Refers to any documents or information compiled for law enforcement purposes in order to protect the law enforcement process from any interference. There are 6 sub-exemptions related to this:

  • Release of information would interfere with a pending law enforcement proceeding
  • Withholding information would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication
  • Release of information could result in an unwarranted invasion of privacy
  • Release of information could identify and jeopardize the safety of confidential sources
  • Release of information protects law enforcement procedures and techniques in regard to investigations
  • Release of information could endanger the life or physical safety of an individual

8. Financial Institution Records: Refers to any reports prepared for or by any bank supervisory agency, such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Reserve or others. Reports normally address things like examinations, operating procedures and conditions of financial institutions.

9. Geological Information: Refers to any information that could be used to determine where oil wells are located. Geological and geophysical data, including maps, are within this category.

When to Make a Request

In an effort to curb the number of requests for information and subsequent administrative heartaches of such requests, many agencies under the FOIA already make a majority of their records available to the public through online libraries or reading rooms. With the internet, it is even easier to search for and find this information. When considering a request, first conduct a thorough search of the internet (and the websites of the federal departments or agencies that might produce the reports) to see if the information you seek already exists.

If you determine that the information you want is not readily available, research exactly which government agency will be in possession of the information you need so that you can address your request to the right one. To begin your search, see the FOIA list of departments that accept FOIA requests.

How to Make a Request

All FOIA requests must be made formally and be directed to the agency that has the information. There is no central FOIA office that handles all of the available information or documentation; each government agency handles its own data and subsequent requests, and their website will have more information on the type of information they have. Templates are readily available online to help individuals and organizations phrase their requests in the right way. Fees may apply and are assessed based on the requestor.

The FOIA requires that government agencies respond within 20 business days. The agency may also invoke a 10-day extension if the amount of records required is high or requires more than one agency’s cooperation.

Many businesses now rely on lawyers or data brokers to make FOIA requests or to find information, so you may want to consult with one of them when seeking information. Some lawyers may specialize in FOIA requests, appeals and other litigation.

Data from the federal government can help your business, especially if you’re looking for a competitive overview and advantage. Using the FOIA to obtain records might give you a head start on the competition, but remember that it’ll also take longer to obtain, so plan accordingly.