Freedom of information (FOI; also known as right to information and access to information) laws around the world establish rights and procedures around access to public information. Normative assumptions examine what’s behind FOI legislation, including rationales stemming from human and political rights frameworks, participatory democratic theory, and transparency and accountability initiatives. Although the freedom of information concept first arose as part of 18th-century enlightenment thinking, recent FOI law took shape in the mid-20th century, influenced by post–World War II human rights treaties, incentives provided by transnational organizations and funders, and individual country support for access to government information. Today, the majority of the world’s countries have FOI laws, most of which were adopted after 1990. FOI laws commonly address who can request information, who must provide information, what information is accessible, what information must be proactively disclosed, and what information is exempted from the law. FOI laws also establish procedural rules around information requests, including mandated response times for requests, appeals processes for denied requests, penalties for improperly withholding information, processes fees, and government reports on the law’s usage. Only a small percentage of people make FOI requests in most nations. Although it varies from country to country, requests from specific groups, including private individuals, commercial businesses, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations, often predominate. FOI requests may be political, professional, or personal in nature, although many FOI laws prohibit governments from asking about or evaluating the reasons for an information request. The ability of FOI laws to provide effective access to information depends on several factors. These include how the laws are written, public awareness of FOI, the cooperation and compliance of government agencies and institutions, and broader political and social conditions affecting FOI implementation and use. Scholars have measured the effects of FOI laws in both quantitative and qualitative terms. While quantitative data yield a picture of who uses FOI laws and how frequently, qualitative and anecdotal data provide ample evidence that such laws have had a positive impact on individuals’ abilities to obtain and use public information. Finally, FOI laws are necessary, but not sufficient, mechanisms for producing more accountable governments. They are unlikely to accomplish government reform on their own, but they can help expose and reform democratic deficits and push governments toward broader democratic reforms.
Laura L. Stein and Lindita Camaj
In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Congress, with allies in the news media, created legislation that came to be known as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It was designed to help hold the federal executive accountable to the public. It became law in 1966. Its significance can be understood in several contexts: (1) in connection with a special relationship of journalists to the operation of the FOIA; (2) in terms of arguments that transparency in government is necessary for citizens’ informed participation in democracy and that, on the other side, there are strong democratic arguments that transparency should be limited in the pursuit of other legitimate values, some of them recognized in the language of the FOIA itself that government agencies may deny a citizen's request for information on the grounds that honoring the request could endanger national security, personal privacy, the integrity of internal government deliberations, or other significant objectives; and (3) that freedom of information law are one institution within a wider web of institutions and practices dedicated to holding government accountable. In this regard, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act can also be seen in a broad context of a cultural shift toward “openness” and a political shift toward what has been called a “monitory” model of democracy.