Government transparency is imagined as a public good necessary to a robust democracy. Consistent with that vision, Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to allow oversight and accountability of governmental activities. No actors are more central to the design than journalists, who were not only the prime intended users, but who were intimately involved in crafting the law itself. But this democracy-enhancing ideal is at odds with FOIA’s reality: at some agencies, commercial — not public — interests dominate the landscape of FOIA requesters.
This Article provides the first in-depth academic study of the commercial use of FOIA, drawing on original datasets from six federal agencies. It uses these agencies as case studies to examine the way that businesses derive profit-making value from free or low-cost federal records. Remarkably, these datasets also reveal a cottage industry of companies whose entire business model is to request federal records under FOIA and resell them at a profit. Information resellers are not isolated occurrences, but rather are some of the most frequent FOIA requesters — often submitting hundreds or even thousands of requests a year — at a variety of federal agencies.
Commercial users certainly have legitimate information needs, but, as this Article demonstrates, the volume and character of the current commercial use of FOIA undermines its efficacy as a transparency tool. Private businesses in essence receive a substantial subsidy without any corresponding public good, all while draining agency resources that might otherwise be used to respond to FOIA requests that serve its central oversight and accountability aims. Moreover, information resellers have become the de facto locus for federal records for whole industries, effectively privatizing an important public function.
Counter-intuitively, limiting commercial requesting will not solve this problem. Instead, this Article proposes a targeted and aggressive policy of requiring government agencies to affirmatively disclose sets of records that are routinely the subject of FOIA requests — a surprisingly large number of the documents sought by commercial requesters. By meeting information needs in a more efficient manner that is available equally to all, affirmative disclosure will enable federal agencies to reclaim public records from the private market and free up resources to better serve FOIA requests that advance its democratic purpose.