Vol. XVIII, No. 3
Agencies Develop Web Sites for FOIA
Under the provisions of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996, 5 U.S.C.A.
Spurred by the Electronic FOIA amendments, and by the potential efficiency of providing FOIA-related information online and using "electronic reading rooms" on the World Wide Web, agencies have increasingly incorporated FOIA considerations into their Web site design and development. All agencies should be developing World Wide Web sites to include one or more electronic "home pages" for FOIA purposes, and there are many models that can be looked to in this process.
Perhaps the most advanced agency in the development of its World Wide Web site, and in its use for FOIA purposes, is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA was one of the first agencies to develop a "FOIA home page." The development of a FOIA home page benefits both FOIA requesters and the agency. For example, when members of the public contact agencies with basic "how to" questions about the FOIA administrative process, these questions consume the time and attention of FOIA personnel. Now, potential FOIA requesters who have access to the World Wide Web can find basic, instructional information on how to submit a FOIA request through use of an agency's FOIA home page.
To reach NASA's FOIA home page, the user must go to NASA's World Wide Web site (at http://www.nasa.gov), select "Organization," scroll down to select "NASA HQ," and then select "Freedom of Information." Listed in the central body of NASA's FOIA home page are the main topics of interest applicable to the entire agency. Listed vertically in the expanded left margin of the page are the various NASA space flight centers, research centers, and test facilities. Each will eventually have its own subsidiary FOIA home page and electronic reading room.
NASA's FOIA home page is organized so that the user can move from one subsidiary home page to another by clicking on the area of interest. For example, a user can move from the Lewis Research Center to the Kennedy Space Center and from there back to NASA Headquarters with just a click. There is a separate entry on making a FOIA request that appears somewhere on every screen; a user does not have to return to the FOIA home page to find it.
NASA's FOIA home page provides basic instructions on obtaining information through the FOIA. Requesters are advised to provide as much information as possible about the documents they seek in order to facilitate record processing. An electronic "link" is provided to a list of NASA's various FOIA offices -- with names of FOIA officers, telephone numbers, and fax numbers. There is also a link to NASA's FOIA regulations published in the Federal Register. NASA also provides links to government reference materials that may be of interest to a requester.
NASA Headquarters has had an electronic reading room operational since May 1 of this year. In addition to being the location at which NASA maintains its newly created FOIA reading room records, it has a link to the Government Information Locator System (GILS), which is a collection of agency-based information locators. NASA's electronic reading room also has a link to NASA's "Directives Library," its "Mixed Fleet Manifest," "UFO Information," and "Impact Card Information." The latter entry, for example, lists the names, telephone numbers, and organizations of NASA officials who hold this government credit card and have the authority to procure goods and services with it. Before that information went online, NASA received several FOIA requests per week for it. Now, NASA may simply refer requesters to the pertinent Web page for ready access.
The Department of Justice has formed a core team of computer services personnel and library personnel to design and manage the content of its World Wide Web site. This team has been joined by a representative from each of the Justice Department's components in order to develop guidelines for its Web site and home pages. Additionally, each component has designated a "content manager" who is responsible for the accuracy, consistency, and accessibility of the information on its home page.
The Justice Department's FOIA home page will soon be accessible by a link directly from the Department's Web site (at http://www.usdoj.gov). The FOIA home page is being designed to meet the needs of all users, whether they are first-time users curious about some aspect of disclosure law, experienced requesters, or federal employees who respond to requests for access to information.
As planned, the first entry on the main menu on the Justice Department's FOIA home page will be an introductory text on the FOIA and the Privacy Act. Following that will be the Justice Department's FOIA Reference Guide, its FOIA and Privacy Act regulations, and the texts of both the FOIA and the Privacy Act. The next entry will be a list of Justice Department components and their FOIA offices. By choosing this topic, users will be able to link directly to the FOIA home page of each Justice Department component -- Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of Legal Counsel, Civil Division, etc. Each component will post the name, address, and telephone number of its principal FOIA officer, a brief description of its functions, and an itemization of the types of information it makes publicly available -- and it also will specify if any special information is required to make a FOIA request for particular types of records. Components that maintain their own conventional FOIA reading rooms will specify the locations of those reading rooms.
The Justice Department's electronic reading room will be organized by individual agency components. As required by the Electronic FOIA amendments, it will contain the FOIA reading room materials created by the agency on or after November 1, 1996 -- final opinions rendered in the adjudication of administrative cases, specific agency policy statements, and administrative staff manuals. It also will contain FOIA-processed copies of frequently requested records under the new fourth reading room category.
One Justice Department component, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has already placed on the Web many records of popular interest that have been previously processed for release under the FOIA. The list of available subjects includes ones such as Elvis Presley, Amelia Earhart, Jackie Robinson, Project Blue Book (a UFO study), and Klaus Barbie. When a portion of a record has been excised, a code appears in the margin or at the place of deletion. These codes may be matched up to an "Explanation of Exemptions" narrative that is also accessible electronically.
Finally, the Justice Department's FOIA page will include many reference publications of interest to those who use the FOIA, such as the "Freedom of Information Act Guide," the "Privacy Act Overview," FOIA Update, and the "Citizen's Guide to the FOIA" that is issued by Congress. The Department made such publications available electronically through the Internet prior to developing its World Wide Web site. See FOIA Update, Winter 1995, at 2.
Other federal agencies, both large and small, are finding that their World Wide Web sites can be an efficient way of both meeting their Electronic FOIA amendment obligations and making information readily available to the public. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation opens its FOIA home page (at http://www.fdic.gov) by telling online readers that "a wealth of information" is available at their fingertips. It recommends that users first look at the "FDIC Public Information Page," where there are many documents available for reading and downloading. Next, users can browse the "Public Information Center," where there is a list of documents available by mail or for inspection and copying at the FDIC's Washington, D.C. Headquarters.
The FDIC's FOIA home page is organized conventionally, with a central body of text and an expanded left margin that contains seven vertical boxes or options for the user to click on. Indeed, the first subdivision of this home page is "Popular FOIA Records," which contains the FDIC's electronic reading room materials. The FDIC has begun to place records in its electronic reading room. Inside the electronic reading room, there are multiple options for records, including a link in some instances to more information about the record.
Additionally, the FDIC's FOIA home page contains its FOIA fee schedule, followed by information on submitting a FOIA request, answers to frequently asked questions, a description of FOIA exemptions, and an explanation of the administrative appeal process. In a separate option, called "Other Non-FOIA Links," the FDIC also provides links to other federal departments and agencies that may have information of interest to potential FOIA requesters.
In complying with the requirements of the Electronic FOIA amendments, agencies should continue to develop and refine World Wide Web sites that are both comprehensive and user-friendly. The use of available electronic resources, such as FOIA home pages and electronic links, can make information publicly accessible in a way that is cost-efficient for all federal agencies.
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