The Electronic Freedom of Information Act:

Article excerpt

The Promise Remains Unfulfilled

"A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy -- or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

On October 2, 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (EFOIA) (5 U.S.C. Sec. 552, As Amended by Public Law No. 104-231, 110 Stat. 2422). The original Freedom of Information Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, recognized the right of any member of the public, American citizen and non-citizen alike, to obtain records created and maintained by all agencies of the executive branch of the United States government. [1] Until EFOIA, requesters had access to paper documents, tapes, films, and other materials created by the agency as a part of its official responsibilities, but not electronic records and documents. Electronic FOIA significantly expanded the definition of a record to include electronically created documents and information. Computer databases, electronic documents, word-processing documents, and even e-mail now fall within the accepted definition of a record and are supposed to be accessible under EFOIA. Consequently, EFOIA has significantly br oadened the right of the public to gain greater access to a wider selection of government documents. The Freedom of Information Act, as President Clinton noted, has now moved into the "information and electronic age. [2]

Lofty goals and inspired idealism aside, the question remains how successful the federal agencies and departments have been in implementing the specific requirements outlined in EFOIA? The following report investigates and accesses how well the 15 major departments and a few selected agencies have fulfilled the requirements of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act. We verified compliance by checking federal agency Web sites during the first 2 weeks of February 1999.

EFOIA -- The Requirements

The Electronic Freedom of Information Act introduces three important requirements:

* The development of agency and component agency Electronic Reading Rooms

* The creation of an electronic FOIA Reference Guide

* The publication of an Annual FOIA Report, due by February 1 of each year

Electronic Reading Rooms

The heart, the soul, the very essence of EFOIA is the requirement that all federal agencies and their components create electronic reading rooms accessible by electronic means. As of November 1, 1997, all federal agencies were required to create electronic reading rooms that would disseminate specific documents and records created on or after November 1, 1996.

FOIA requires federal agencies to publish specific records in the Federal Register. These records include:

* Descriptions of the agency's organizational structure, including names, addresses, and contact information for central offices and field offices

* Description of the procedures established to provide public access to agency records including the location of the records and the name of the person in charge of them

* General description of how the agency functions and its decision-making process

* The agency's rules of procedure, including a description of agency forms and where you can obtain them

* The agency's general policies

In addition, each agency must make available for public inspection and copying:

* Final decisions/opinions in particular administrative cases

* Policy statements that the agency uses, but did not publish in the Federal Register

* Administrative staff manuals that affect members of the public

* Copies of FOIA-released records likely to be repeatedly requested

* An index of the information that must be made public that must be made available via "computer telecommunications" by December 31, 1999

These documents must be available directly to the public through the agency's electronic reading room and do not require a FOIA request. …