Enacted in 1966, and taking effect on July 4, 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure. The FOIA is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. As Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court have all recognized, the FOIA is a vital part of our democracy.
Under the FOIA, agencies must disclose any information that is requested – unless that information is protected from public disclosure. The FOIA also requires that agencies automatically disclose certain information, including frequently requested records. Agencies routinely post a wide variety of documents on their websites to inform the public about the activities of that agency. The primary source of FOIA-related information for the public is the website. FOIA.Gov is a website created by the Department of Justice where you can learn about the FOIA, view significant FOIA releases, and access all the data collected by the Department of Justice reflecting agencies’ administration of the FOIA. On FOIA.Gov, you will find information about making a FOIA request, including agency contact information. The website contains a glossary of FOIA terms, frequently asked questions and answers connected with the FOIA, educational videos, and links and information regarding other Open Government websites. It also provides detailed information about the number of FOIA requests received each year, how agencies handled these requests, as well as information on processing times, backlogs, fees and agency personnel who work to comply with the FOIA.
The Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) oversees agency compliance with the FOIA and encourages all agencies to fully comply with both the letter and the spirit of the FOIA. At OIP’s website, you will find additional information, guidance, and a comprehensive legal treatise on the FOIA called the United States Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act. The OIP website also includes summaries of court opinions decided under the FOIA and links to agencies’ Annual FOIA Reports and Chief FOIA Officer Reports.
The Privacy Act of 1974 can also be used to obtain access to records about yourself. The Privacy Act establishes certain controls over how executive branch agencies of the federal government collect, maintain, use and disseminate personal information about individuals maintained by federal agencies. The Privacy Act provides individuals with a means to seek access to and amendment of their records, but it pertains only to records about individual U.S. citizens and lawfully admitted permanent resident aliens. The FOIA, on the other hand, covers virtually all records in the possession and control of federal executive branch agencies.
This brochure provides basic guidance about how the FOIA and the Privacy Act work to assist you in exercising your rights. It uses a question-and-answer format to present information about these laws in a clear, simple manner. The brochure is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the complex issues associated with the FOIA and the Privacy Act.
The questions answered here are those frequently asked by persons who contact the Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC) of the U.S. General Services Administration for information on the FOIA and the Privacy Act. The answers were compiled by the FCIC, along with the Department of Justice — the agency responsible for encouraging agency compliance with the FOIA in a spirit of openness and transparency. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has a similar responsibility for the Privacy Act, reviewed the answers to questions on that law.