Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), ordinary U.S. citizens have the right to request information from the federal government. The law is often used by journalists to report important stories, and is used (at least in theory) to help keep the government operating in a lawful, transparent manner.
Sounds great, right? The problem is that each state has its own FOIA laws and regulations, making requesting state records complicated. Even the federal law is riddled with exemptions and bureaucratic red tape. So even though you or I have the right to request information from our government, in reality, only seasoned pros familiar with the law are able to take advantage of it. Even worse, they may not always be able to get the information they want — or they may be charged hefty fees for information that’s supposed to be free.
The Center for Investigative Reporting has decided enough is enough. They’ve teamed up with developers and America’s top investigative reporters to create a new online tool that takes the pain out of the FOIA request process. Called FOIA Machine, the site automates the request process and helps novices navigate the different laws, regulations and loopholes that might normally keep their request from being granted. It even tracks important deadlines and contact information for you.
At the moment, the system is being tested out by 15 reporters, with another 800 signed up to try it as soon as it goes live. By the end of the year, the tool is expected to be open to the public, so that anyone can request whatever information they need quickly and easily. This could make it easier for citizen journalists, bloggers, activists and people who simply have questions about what their government is doing to get the answers they need. In fact, the CIR is encouraging average citizens to use this information to break important stories even if they’re not journalists.
In an age where it seems unflattering (and sometimes frightening) information about government surveillance is coming out every day, it’s important to be able to use every tool available to keep the government in line. In time, the application will be expanded to help people in nations outside the U.S. request information from their governments as well.
Of course, not everyone thinks that greater access to government records is a good thing. Some are warning that government agencies are going to need to prepare for a wave of requests once the project goes public.
Right now, FOIA Machine is fundraising for the full version of their site on Kickstarter. They reached their initial goal within just a few days of posting the project, but they’re still accepting donations to help implement extra features.
Photo credit: FOIA Machine