FBI axes FOIA requests by email, so dust off your fax machine

As tech-savvy government efforts like 18F and the USDS take technological strides forward, other parts of the government are abandoning modern technology altogether.

Starting next month, the FBI will no longer accept Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by email. In lieu of its popular email service, the FBI suggests sending a fax or snail mail, a procedural change that has more to do with obstructing the law than a dearth of resources.

As the Daily Dot‘s Dell Cameron reports, the FBI will allow a small portion of FOIA requests via a new web portal, but the filer must first provide a phone number, mailing address and other personal details as well as signing off on the following terms of service agreement.



The terms state that anyone making a FOIA request online is now “limited to making one request per day and one request per submission,” language that does not immediately appear to be supported by law. Then again, the FBI’s established use of outdated technology for FOIA requests does not necessarily sit well with its requirement to show that a search was “reasonably calculated to discover the requested documents,” as is required by law.

Some of the portal’s phrasing is murky at best, but then again, so are many things about the government’s FOIA implementation. While not difficult, exactly, the formalized nature of FOIA can be intimidating for anyone new to the process. For publications with the resources to do so, it’s not uncommon to sue in order to obtain FOIA documents that the government refuses to hand over.

To make the whole thing more accessible—and to promote the freedom of information more broadly—a popular service called MuckRock offers forms and online tracking for anyone using FOIA to request documents in the public record. The spirit of the FBI’s FOIA shift runs exactly counter to MuckRock’s mission, and the mission of so many FOIA filers who seek to emancipate information that rightfully belongs to the public.

The Freedom of Information Act might not be sexy in acronym form, but some of the revelations that it ushers out of the shadows turn out to be total bombshells. Even if you’ve never heard of FOIA, you’ve almost certainly followed a major headline that began as a humble FOIA request. For journalists, FOIA is the most powerful transparency tool around, allowing reporters who know where to look access to deep slices of government documentation that would otherwise remain behind the curtain.

The FBI is only one of many government bodies providing FOIA resistance, but it’s a big one. Notably, the CIA is among the other agencies that do not accept standard digital FOIA requests in spite of having the resources to do so. Given its track record and ongoing controversy, the FBI’s decision to revert to archaic technology is troubling, but for dogged FOIA filers, another layer of strategic obfuscation is just business as usual.