Release-to-One, Release-to-All FOIA Pilot Shakes Some Journos

July 15, 2015

Are journalists hypocritical about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), seeking disclosure of government records when it suits their interests, but opposing disclosure when it undermines their competitive advantage?

A new pilot program has raised that issue. The so-called "Release-to-one, release-to-all" pilot program would make available to the public automatically and immediately any information released to an individual FOIA requester.

But some journalists — especially those who do long-term investigative projects which they do not want "stolen" by journalistic competitors, would rather not have their pending scoops revealed before they are ripe.

This is not exactly a new issue during the 49-year history of FOIA. But FOIA does encourage agencies to proactively publish a range of key documents of interest to the general public. In practice, this does not always happen at individual agencies. Individual agency FOIA request logs are already available online in some cases (and certainly available via FOIA request). Occasionally, the WatchDog has linked to them, and even more occasionally journalists have expressed misgivings.

At the instigation of the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy, which oversees federal agency FOIA policies, seven federal agencies are carrying out a six-month trial or pilot program. According to a Justice release, it is designed to "test the feasibility of posting online FOIA responses so that they are available not just to the individual requester, but to the general public as well."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is one of the six carrying out the pilot program. The others are the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and certain components of the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the National Archives and Records Administration.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple interviewed some journalists to get their reactions. Several said it would hurt investigations that take a long time, and remove the incentive for gumshoe journalists to do all the work of filing extensive FOIA requests for stories.

The pilot procedure has a privacy exemption for when people seek government information about themselves.

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