As long as you’ve identified the information you want, asking for it via a FOIA request is usually very easy
The Freedom of Information Act is an incredibly powerful law. Other than a few common-sense exceptions, you have the right to request any piece of information held by the government. That includes everything from Hillary Clinton’s emails and GITMO interrogation experiments to public complaints about South Park and the filming locations of your favorite movies.
Whether it’s used for for journalism, academic research, business intelligence, or just to satisfy personal curiosity, the Freedom of Information Act gives the public access to an incomprehensibly large information resource.
If you have never made a FOIA request before, you may expect that the process would be time consuming and bureaucratic, as are most dealings with the government. However, unlike filing your taxes or waiting in line at the DMV, making a FOIA request is actually incredibly simple and easy (though actually receiving the records can become a very different story).
To demonstrate, here is a request you can make right now. Start to finish, it will take you no more than a minute.
FOIA example: requesting public complaints against a website of your choosing
The FTC is the agency responsible for handling general consumer complaints, all of which are publicly available via a FOIA request.
Copy the text below, paste it into an email, fill in the brackets with your own information, and send to FOIA@ftc.gov with the subject line “FOIA Request”.
Dear FOIA Officer –
I request a copy of the last 5 complaints your agency has received against [SOME WEBSITE].
[YOUR PHONE NUMBER]
That’s all there is to it. Within a few weeks, you can expect to receive something like this: Muckrock’s request for complaints against Airbnb. If it is taking a while and you want to check up on the request, you can send them a note at the same email address, or give them a call. You can find their contact information on the FTC FOIA resources page.
You can stop reading here if you want. An email like the one above will work for most requests.
If you have a particular topic in mind, search for it here to see what information the government has. When you find something you want to request, find the agency’s contact information, and send them an email like the one above, describing in plain English the information you want to receive.
Other things you may want to say in the request
If you send the request above, chances are all you have to do is sit back and wait for the information to arrive. However, if you want to give yourself the best odds of receiving exactly the information you want, without having to pay a fee, and with as little wait time as possible, there is more you can add to the request.
Dear FOIA Officer –
I request a copy of the last 5 complaints your agency has received against [SOME WEBSITE]
[YOUR PHONE NUMBER]
These five lines are by no means standard. They are just a few pieces I have found helpful in making sure FOIA requests go smoothly.
Here are the reasons you may want to include these items in your request:
(1) This is just a formality, mostly out of courtesy, so that when the FOIA Officer picks up the email, it’s clear what they are reading a FOIA request.
(2) If you do not specify how you would like to receive the information, you leave it at the agency’s discretion. They may send it by email or by post. And the records may come in any possible file format (PDF, Excel, image file, etc) or as paper printouts. For comparison with the Airbnb complaints above, here are FTC complaints against Google in Excel format.
If you have a preference for how you would like to receive the information, it’s best to specify the format in the request. Keep in mind: if you want to receive the information by mail, the agency may ask you to pay for postage and possibly also for photocopying or the cost of a blank CD-ROM.
(3) Agencies are more likely to require a processing fee if the request is made on behalf of a business for a commercial purpose. If you are asking for the records as a private individual for personal use, you will usually not be charged for a request unless it involves more than two hours of work. To minimize your odds of being asked for a fee, it is best to state in the request that the records are for personal use.
(4) If the agency has any questions, they are supposed to contact you anyway, and normally they do. However, it is also not uncommon for agencies to deny requests for being unclear, in which case you would have to start over and send a clearer request. To avoid that, it doesn’t hurt to specify that you would like to agency to contact you with questions.
(5) There has been some research showing that agencies respond faster to requests when the it is clear the requester knows their rights. Agencies are required to respond within 20 business day, so you may want to show you are aware of this requirement.
If you choose to include any of these things in your request, there is no need to use my language. As long as it is understandable, you can phrase the request however you like.
Other considerations when writing a FOIA request
The information requested in this example (consumer complaints against a website) is simple, so one sentence was enough describe it clearly. However, as a general rule, the more specific you can be about what you’re asking for, the better.
That point is important enough to state again: The more specific you can be about what you’re asking for, the better.
It is always helpful to include further details you think will help the agency to understand exactly what you are asking for. Though figuring out exactly what those “further details” should be depends on the specific information you are requesting. If the request is complex, it is here where FOIA requests start to become challenging.
If you want to see some examples of different ways that requests can play out (or in some cases, drag on for years without ever playing out), head over to Muckrock and look through some of their requests. They include the full chain of correspondence from both sides. The site can also guide you though the process of submitting your own request.
I plan to add more posts in the future covering some of the challenging aspects of FOIA, using my own experience navigating difficult requests. In the meantime, if you are new to FOIA and have any questions about making a request, please feel free to reach out with questions.
For that matter, whether you are new to FOIA or an experienced FOIA master, I would love to hear your thoughts.
FOIA Mapper is a free resource, funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation. And hearing your feedback would be a big help. What would make FOIA Mapper a more useful tool to you?
More about my background
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