President Barack Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act into law Thursday, raising the bar for agencies seeking to deny Freedom of Information Act requests.
“The Freedom of Information Act is one of the key ways in which citizens are able to find out what exactly is going on in government,” Obama said just prior to signing.
The bill, which is the biggest addition to the open government law since since the original legislation was signed by President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago, will codify policy memorandums Obama put out on his first day of office. Federal agencies now must release information unless there is a legal reason to withhold it, which must be specified.
Additionally, the bill will create a centralized FOIA request website, which will allow people to find the right office to request information from, track requests online and figure out if the information they want has already been publicly released. The White House will also examine a standard of “release to one is to release to all,” which would direct agencies to proactively post their FOIA responses online.
[Read previous coverage: FOIA bill heads to Obama’s desk]
The bill was sent to Obama’s desk after the House passed the Senate’s version of the measure earlier this month.
“Fortunately, Congress on a bipartisan basis has provided the tools to codify some of the reforms we’ve already made and to expand more of these reforms so that government is more responsive,” the president said at the signing ceremony. “And I am very proud of all the work we’ve done to try to make government more open and responsive, but I know that people haven’t always been satisfied with the speed with which they’re getting responses and requests.
“Hopefully this is going to help and be an important initiative for us to continue on the reform path.”
Demand Progress Policy Director Daniel Schuman said in a release the bill “represents a step forward on government openness.”
“There is a lot more that still must be done, including addressing executive branch overreach in withholding information from the public, streamlining the FOIA request process, and making FOIA fully digital,” Schuman said. “Nevertheless, this new legislation will help prevent the next administration from backsliding into bad habits of withholding crucial information from the public.”
Agencies will now have 180 days to issue new regulations required to implement the bill.
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