The Freedom of Information Act is a federal law that allows people in the United States to access unreleased documents and information held by the government. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is set to make some changes to the way FOIA requests are submitted at the beginning of March.
Starting next month, the FBI will no longer accept FOIA requests that are submitted by email. Instead, requests will have to be sent via fax or standard mail, or submitted via an online portal.
“The FBI’s eFOIA portal was designed and developed to be the FBI’s primary means for receiving FOIA and Privacy Act requests,” reads a statement sent to Digital Trends via email. “The portal provides the FBI with an automated process for the receipt and opening of requests, replacing the current manual process and substantially reducing the time it takes to receive and open each electronic request received. Given the FBI’s high volume of requests, this will significantly increase efficiency.”
The online portal may seem like a fine replacement for email submissions, but it’s subject to its own caveats. Users are expected to agree to terms of service, and submit personal information including their physical address and a phone number. Furthermore, the portal will only accept a certain number of requests each day.
The FBI isn’t alone in compelling people to use outdated methods to submit their requests. The Central Intelligence Agency only accepts requests that are sent by fax, while the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency similarly dropped support for email submissions in favor of faxed documents.
The decision to end support for requests sent by email has already been subjected to criticism. Some opponents are arguing that the change is a transparent attempt to make it harder for people to pursue FOIA requests, while others are concentrating on the exact terms of the new arrangement.
Originally, the terms of service attached to the new online portal stated that users are limited to one request per day, and one request per submission, and that users need to state whether their request is being made from the United States or another country. These parameters aren’t laid out in FOIA legislation, so it’s being asserted that their enforcement is another way to dissuade people from making requests.
However, in its statement issued to Digital Trends, the FBI confirmed that these terms will be updated once the policy takes effect on March 1. The revised policy will allow for an unlimited number of requests, with no restrictions on the amount submitted by any one individual.
Updated on 02/07/2017 by Brad Jones: Added official FBI statement and official clarification regarding terms of service.