The Freedom of Information Act, the shortened title FOIA, is a federal law on freedom of information that allows full or partial disclosure of information and documents of the US government. The 89th United States Congress passed the law. President Lindon B. Johnson signed the bill, despite his doubts on July 4, 1966, and it came into force the following year. The law applies only to documents of the executive branch.
The law applies to documents of all authorities and institutions except for the papers of the US president and his direct advisors, the US Congress, its committees and under its direct supervision institutions such as the Library of Congress, and federal judicial system bodies. Similarly, the law does not relate to private organizations (Berger, 2011). Also, it does not apply to executive bodies of states, local governments whose openness is governed by state laws (FOIA, 1967), although local branches of the federal government – for instance, the tax administration – are obliged to obey it.
In my opinion, the law has made a crucial contribution to the development of the information society. Its essence consists of full openness for citizens of all documents of the federal government bodies, except for those cases stipulated in this law. The law placed the judicial authorities under the control of secrecy of documents and prohibited the publication of secret decisions of the government. According to the law, a US citizen can request from any US federal agency any materials other than those that are excluded (FOIA, 1967). If the institution does not provide the required information, while it does have it, the local court has the right to extract this information and transfer it to the citizen forcibly, and the state institution will be obliged to satisfy this request.
Furthermore, freedom of access to information is achieved through the publication of documents in the Federal Register, as well as granting citizens the right to read and copy documents. To ensure the latter, most government agencies have created reading rooms. The lack of publication of documents in some judicial precedents led to the recognition of decisions of institutions as invalid. The institution should not only provide its records to the public but also create conditions for their rapid search through the regular publication of pointers. The reasons for the request for information do not need to be explained, the deadlines for issuing a response to it are fixed. The refusal of the institution to provide information can be appealed in the district court (FOIA, 1967); such complaints are considered as a matter of priority. In most cases, the claimant is reimbursed for legal costs in the event of successful completion of the case.
Moreover, the text of the law was amended in connection with the enactment of Privacy Act in 1974 (Berger, 2011). These restrictions relate to personal data collected by public services. The understanding of personal data in this law is quite broad and includes a unit, a selection or a group of information about an individual that the department has. This provides information on education, financial transactions, medical history, criminal and labor biography, and which contains an indication of its name, identification number, symbol or other identifying feature (for instance, fingerprints or a photograph).
I consider such amendments vital in the modern world. If before the boundaries of the sphere of private life had a conditional physical expression and passed through the walls of the dwelling, now they become informational. Personal information, fallen into the hands of villains, can significantly harm a person, and even break his life. Thus, protection of personal data remains one of the most acute problems in the information relations between citizens, the state, corporations.
Summarizing, The Freedom of Information Act ensures the right of the public to access documents of the US government and serves as an essential component of providing accountability of authority to the people it serves. The Privacy Act supplements it, ensuring that personal data collected by authorities should only be used in certain acceptable ways. Therefore, my position on these acts is supportive.
- Berger, M. (2011). The Freedom of Information Act: implications for public health policy and practice. Public Health Reports, 126(3), 428–432.