The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a rare example of a government program that actually serves the public. Journalists, citizens, and all sorts of public interest organizations (EFF included) use FOIA to bring to light government documents and information that would otherwise remain hidden from public view.

But FOIA’s effectiveness has declined in recent years. A report released in July showed that FOIA requests were increasingly getting stuck in bureaucratic limbo -- some for as long as 20 years! And after the September 11 attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft instructed government agencies to withhold information they could release if there is any ground for keeping it from the public.

Now, public interest groups are applauding the passage by the House and the Senate (login may be required) of a recent bill that aims to fix some of FOIA’s problems. Similar legislation stalled earlier this year after passing the House and Senate, but the more recent bill is now poised to make the first changes to FOIA in more than a decade.

While the legislation isn’t perfect, it will take some steps towards streamlining the process and creating more accountability:

  • A tracking system for FOIA requests will assign a public number to each request, and create a hotline for agencies to deal with problems.
  • Complaints about FOIA processing will be received by an ombudsman at the National Archives.
  • Agencies that fail to respond within FOIA’s required 20-day limit will lose the ability to recoup research and copying costs from requesters.
  • Requesters will have increased power to sue to recover court costs and attorney’s fees.
  • FOIA will apply to government records held by private contractors.

The President has not said whether he will sign the bill, but unless he explicitly issues a veto, it will become law in 10 days (assuming that Congress remains in recess over the holidays). If the new law actually manages to make FOIA requests move faster in 2008, EFF will be among the first to know.

To see the kinds of revelations that result from FOIA requests, visit EFF's FOIA Litigation for Accountable Government (FLAG) Project page.