FOIA Files Your Way

Government agencies deal with tons of FOIA requests every day. There are a lot of steps to processing these requests from receipt to delivery. On top of that, FOIA amendments from 2007 require that agencies release information electronically upon request. Are more requirements on the horizon?

Recently, one UK judge took things a step further. One UK citizen was not satisfied with the 184 pages of PDFs he received in response to his information request. He kept pushing until his case worked its way up to the Court of Appeals of England and Wales where Lord Justice Nicholas Underhill ruled that one may specify electronic file formats in their requests.

U.S. FOIA requirements have not yet taken this step, but it might be just a matter of time. Thanks to automation tools it can be easier to work electronically than to respond to information requests in hard copy, but not every file format is right for every job. The UK ruling that requestors may specify file format is taking a big leap and here are a few resons why:

  • Content Corruption: Let’s say a requestor wants their files delivered via PDF. Great! PDF files accommodate images and text, and they can be opened and read with free software. Word processor documents, however, can run into some technical issues. When a file format is changed, data corruption can often occur between versions, changing the actual content of the file. For PDFs run through Optical Content Recognition (OCR) software, errors in translation are also a possibility.
  • Cost: Not all formats are created equal – in terms of cost at least. Some file formats are only accessible through proprietary software which requestors may not have access to. It gets to be a slippery slope figuring out which file formats each party can access. That also means agencies have to have access to a wider range of (sometimes expensive) software programs.
  • Linked Files and Embedding: While it may seem like having the original file format is the way to go, many times these files do not operate in a vacuum. Embedded or linked files within a folder may not be included within the information request. If the file sent in the response cannot operate without those links, it’s not going to be much use.
  • Expertise: PDFs and text documents are easily accessible by all technical skill levels. Once you get into formats like SQL databases, complex graphics files, or other less commonly known platforms there is more room for confusion.

While it may make sense to give requestors the ability to ask for the file type they need most, there are also many factors to take into consideration. In any case, the public is becoming ever more computer-savvy, so look out for tech-forward amendments in the future.