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Prue Adler
Public Access Policies

Freedom of Information Act

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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted in 1966, generally provides that any person has a right of access to federal agency records.  The FOIA covers all records under the custody and control of federal executive branch agencies. The FOIA provides access to all federal agency records (or portions of those records) except those which are protected from release by nine specific exemptions (reasons an agency may withhold records from a requester).  

The exemptions cover such material as (1) classified national defense and foreign relations information, (2) internal agency personnel rules and practices, (3) material prohibited from disclosure by another law, (4) trade secrets and other confidential business information, (5) certain inter-agency or intra-agency communications, (6) personnel, medical, and other files involving personal privacy, (7) certain records compiled for law enforcement purposes, (8) matters relating to the supervision of financial institutions, and (9) geological information on oil wells.   The FOIA does not apply to Congress or the courts, nor does it apply to records of state or local governments.

The FOIA was amended in 1974, 1976, and 1986 to narrow the scope of FOIA exemptions and the ability of agencies to withhold information. Amendments in 1996 extended FOIA's provisions to electronic records, and requires agencies to package information electronically—via computer diskette, CD-ROM, or the Internet, for example—for any requester.