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date: 15 May 2021

Freedom of Informationfree

  • Laura L. SteinLaura L. SteinMoody College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin
  •  and Lindita CamajLindita CamajJack J. Valenti School of Communication, University of Houston


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.

Normative Assumptions Behind FOI Legislation

Multiple rationales surround freedom of information laws, which establish rights and procedures around what different countries have variously termed freedom of information (FOI), access to information (ATI), and right to information (RTI). FOI supporters commonly assert the law’s ability to serve as a tool for achieving desirable social and political outcomes, including government accountability, good governance, and economic development. These and other rationales for FOI in turn stem from different frames of reference that emphasize various, though often overlapping, purposes. These frames include broader discourses and philosophies pertaining to human rights, political rights, participatory democratic theory, and transparency and accountability initiatives.

Early conceptualizations of FOI in the 20th century were part of international declarations of universal legal principles that sought to find a firmer foundation for law and morality in the aftermath of Nazi atrocities in World War II. These laws sought to protect what were seen as fundamental civil, political, and economic rights grounded in the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” of all human beings (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble, 1948). Within this human rights framework, the freedom to “seek, receive and impart information” was intended to help redefine power relationships among the various groups in society that have a stake in public information (Snell & Sebina, 2007; Stiglitz, 2002). The FOI provisions included in early human rights treaties were designed to tackle the inherent information asymmetry between those that govern and the governed and mend potentially problematic relationships between citizens and their governments (Snell & Sebina, 2007). These treaties conceived of governments as the guardians of public information on behalf of citizens rather than that information’s owners. They also provided a legal mechanism through which citizens could access government information proactively instead of passively waiting for the government to release information at its discretion (Paterson, 2008). FOI principles sought to empower “the right-holder (the subject of the right) to demand information from the duty-bearer (in this case the state),” creating a mechanism whereby the state would be accountable to citizens to perform this duty (Calland & Bentley, 2013, p. 71).

FOI has also been understood within a liberal political rights framework that views rights as tools both to restrict state power and to further collective public interests. The liberal democratic tradition holds that all citizens should participate in self-governance and that rights are a central means of protecting individual liberty. In this view, the ability of citizens to act as rational political beings, to self-govern, and to participate in civic life is central to representative democracy (Dahl, 1989; Habermas, 1991). In this approach, FOI is necessary to protect both the functioning of democracy as well as other political rights. Democratic functioning requires informed citizens to collectively determine the larger public good and to possess the information necessary to choose leaders who represent their views and interests. FOI laws serve as tools to address democratic deficits and even developmental failures (Gaventa & McGee, 2013). FOI also acts as a leverage right (Jagwanth, 2002) or a prerequisite for the exercise of other socio-democratic rights (Calland & Bentley, 2013; Gaventa & McGee, 2013). For example, information about the activities of politicians is necessary to effectively exercise voting rights, and knowledge of government policies and procedures may be necessary to obtain government services or benefits.

Ideas about FOI also stem from more participatory democratic traditions within liberal democratic theory. Participatory democratic theory places greater emphasis on citizen participation in democratic processes, seeks to extend democratic decision-making more broadly throughout political and social institutions, and asserts that citizens require adequate resources to enable participation (Held, 1987, p. 262). Ideally, citizen participation should not be limited to voting for representatives but should include deliberative participation in policymaking and other realms. According to this school of thought, greater access to information allows citizens to be more knowledgeable, to meaningfully engage in decision-making, and to demand accountability (Snell & Sebina, 2007). FOI can also be looked at as integral to the exercise of free speech and other rights and to ensuring greater democratic participation. As Ackerman and Sandoval (2006, p. 91) put it, “FOI laws are a further development in age-old struggles for freedom of opinion and of the press, as well as the right to participate in government decision making.”

As more countries, not all of which are mature democracies, engage in freedom of information initiatives, FOI has been associated with concepts of accountability and good governance (Calland & Bentley, 2013). FOI is often a central part of transparency and accountability initiatives (TAI) that address developmental problems (Gaventa & McGree, 2013). TAI typically combine FOI legislation with other mechanisms designed to bring government information into the public domain and hold governments accountable for their actions. These initiatives presume that increasing access to information leads to more transparency, while transparency leads to more accountable decision-making. In this approach, FOI is intended to deliver more participatory democratic forms of government, to improve government delivery of goods and services, to increase government accountability, and to reduce corruption (Ackerman & Sandoval, 2006; Darch & Underwoode, 2010; Mendel, 2008). TAI posit a direct relationship between access to information and socio-economic development. This school of thought often draws on market metaphors to understand the relationship between governments and their citizens, conceptualizing the state as an essential service provider and citizens as its customers (Gaventa & McGee, 2013; Kosack & Fung, 2014). Ultimately, TAI positions FOI as a mechanism to help achieve a more efficient economy, better standards for health and food security, and a better environment (Darch & Underwood, 2010).

Drawing on these theoretical frameworks, several authors have formulated lists of concrete FOI objectives and potential outcomes (Article 19, 2004; Banisar, 2006; Darch & Underwood, 2010; James, 2006; Mendel, 2008). Mendel (2008, p. 141) identified the common principles and objectives found across FOI legislation around the world as (1) transparency, (2) accountability, (3) public participation, and (4) informing citizens. Banisar (2006) named (1) democratic participation and understanding, (2) the protection of other rights, (3) making government bodies work better, and (4) the redress of the past harm as common objectives. James (2006) noted among the benefits emphasized during the United Kingdom’s debates over FOI’s adoption (1) encouraging greater transparency, (2) enhancing public participation in government, (3) enhancing the quality of decision-making, (4) allowing citizens and organizations to assert their rights, (5) raising public confidence in the process of government, (6) increasing the effectiveness of administration, (7) increasing the accountability of the government, (8) safeguarding probity, (9) increasing the effectiveness of the media, and (10) altering the culture of public service. Taking a global perspective, the international nongovernmental organization Article 19 (2004) provided a more specific list of benefits that included (1) a less corrupt society, (2) a society that is healthier and hunger-free, (3) a society that respects the environment, fundamental human rights, and privacy, (4) more security and democracy, (5) a more efficient government and better decision-making, (6) a more efficient economy, and (7) better treatment of individuals by institutions (p. 9, as cited in Darch & Underwood, 2010). Hazell, Worthy, and Glover (2010) synthesize the above lists of objectives into six categories: (1) increasing governmental transparency, (2) increasing accountability, (3) improving the quality of decision-making, (4) improving public understanding of government, (5) increasing public trust, and (6) increasing participation.

Scholars further suggest that FOI laws improve democratic practice and economic development by facilitating social and institutional level changes (Calland & Bentley, 2013). While social changes include the development of a more knowledgeable, trusting, and participatory citizenry, institutional change references increased governmental transparency and accountability, improved decision-making, and good governance.

The Evolution of FOI Laws and Rights

FOI evolved over the last two centuries as both a principle and a set of legal practices. Its origins are in the age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. Enlightenment ideas about governance by rule of law (rather than the discretion of autocratic rulers or professional statesmen), the ability of scientific methods to make the world knowable and thus controllable, and the need to publicize the activities of government arose during this period (Hood, 2006). Sweden established the first FOI legislation in 1766. In response to King Adolf Frederick’s censorship of the press and secrecy surrounding government information, the Swedish parliament passed an ordinance abolishing press censorship and giving citizens a right of access to government documents. The Declarations of the Rights of Man in France 1789 and in the Netherlands in 1795 both included the right of the public to review government accounts and budgets (Banisar, 2006, p. 18). Political philosopher Jeremy Bentham advocated for freedom of information principles in the early 1800s. In his essay “On Publicity,” Bentham (1836) argued that legislatures should permit themselves and others to publish accounts of their activities, proposals, speeches, discussions, votes, and decisions. The benefits of publicity included encouraging legislatures to perform their duties, securing public confidence in and assent for legislation, allowing the public to form enlightened opinions and vote knowledgeably, and enabling legislators to look to informed members of the public for innovative solutions to political problems. Despite its Enlightenment era origins, the idea of FOI remained largely dormant until the 20th century. Few countries endorsed FOI principles or adopted them into law until after World War II.

Increased attention to human rights in the wake of World War II reinvigorated interest in FOI internationally. The principle of FOI was articulated in seminal human rights documents produced by the United Nations. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) contained articles declaring that freedom of information was integral to free speech rights. The latter agreement states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression: this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information.” Subsequently, the principle of FOI has been reiterated in numerous international treaties and agreements and has often provided external impetus for many countries to recognize the principle and to develop their own FOI regimes. As Banisar (2006) shows, the FOI clauses found in international agreements have become an important mechanism for furthering human rights, anti-corruption, and environmental protection.1 In line with earlier rights agreements, the American Convention on Human Rights (1969) and the Arab Charter on Human Rights (1994) have also recognized the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information.” The United Nations Convention Against Corruption (2005) and the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (2003) have encouraged countries to adopt measures increasing access to information in order to combat government corruption. These measures include requiring governments to provide information on their organization, functioning, and decision-making. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) and the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation and Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (1998) have required governments to adopt laws giving a right of access to government information and documents that are vital to environmental concerns. The Aarhus Convention affirmed the importance of access to information affecting the state of the environment, public health and safety, and other factors and conditions that have a bearing on human life and the environment.

Other external international or transnational influences have also been instrumental in catalyzing the adoption of FOI regimes. The Council of Europe has recommended that its member countries adopt freedom of information laws since the 1970s. The European Union gives citizens of the EU and residents of its member states the right to access information from EU bodies, making these subject to their own FOI regimes (Consolidated Version of the Treaty Establishing the European Community, art. 255, 2002). However, the EU has not always behaved transparently or honored legitimate requests for information (Bunyan, 2002). International organizations have also become alternative sources of information for citizens in some countries, providing another avenue to obtain information that might expose government scandals and corruption. International lending organizations, most notably the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, have promoted countries’ adoption of FOI as a condition for their financial assistance. The George Soros Open Society Foundations also incentivized countries to develop FOI regimes with grant programs focusing on freedom of information, access to knowledge, and government transparency. In sum, an array of international influences have spurred many countries to adopt their own FOI regimes, although in some cases the commitment to FOI has been superficial, with countries failing to design strong laws or to implement them.

At a country level, FOI regimes can take many forms. Many countries adopt freedom of information clauses in their constitutions. FOI clauses are more prevalent in relatively newly written constitutions, such as those of Central European, Eastern European, and Latin American countries. However, constitutional statements of principle may not flesh out access to information regimes as effectively as national FOI laws (Michenor, 2011, p. 148). Countries often adopt FOI laws in order to specify the scope of and procedures for access to government information. In countries where constitutional rights of access also exist, FOI laws can give definition to the contours of this right without necessarily limiting it. In other words, countries that view FOI as a fundamental human or political right may extend protection beyond what is written in particular legislation. In other countries, FOI legislation creates a right of access to government information, which would not otherwise garner constitutional protection. Such is the case in the United States, where FOIA legislation effectively constitutes the shape and limits of this right. Although beyond the scope of this article, principles of information access may also be found across a variety of regulatory fields, whether financial, economic, environmental, cultural, social, or political. Information policy, namely the laws, rules, structures, and practices that regulate information creation, processing, flows, and use (Braman, 2006), is not confined to FOI legislation.

The shape of any one country’s FOI law is historically contingent. How the law is written depends on the forces and factors motivating the law, as well as the vision and interests of different actors advocating on its behalf. While some countries have adopted FOI in response to external pressures or incentives, others have been motivated by the desire to minimize government secrecy and opportunities for corruption, to increase knowledge of and participation in democratic processes and decision-making, to encourage good governance, and to reorder the relationship of citizens to their governments (away from ruler–subject relations and towards elected representative–citizen relations). Advocacy efforts among interested constituencies, including government actors, the news media, social movement groups, and civil and human rights activists, have also been critical to the passage and form of different countries’ FOI laws.

The story of FOIA in the United States, which passed its first Freedom of Information Act in 1966, illustrates some of the variable influences and contingencies that can shape the law. Reacting against increased government secrecy during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, a tenacious member of Congress, John Moss, and the American news media engaged in a 10-year campaign to institute the first U.S. FOI Act (FOIA). The resultant Act proclaimed the “right of the public to information,” and directed government agencies to publish information about their rules, procedures, and functions; to make their opinions, orders, rules, and records of proceedings available for public inspection; and to release other agency records upon request (Freedom of Information Act, 1966). The law’s procedural details, however, were weak or absent. For example, the 1966 Act lacked provisions for appeals, sanctions, or enforcement. Following the Watergate scandal and growing public distrust with the secretive and corrupt Nixon administration, the press and Congress sought to improve the Act (Schudson, 2014, p. 14). An amendment adopted in 1974 gave more teeth to the Act, strengthening FOIA’s procedures and administration. It required government agencies to publish indexes of government-held information and regulated the fees government agencies could charge for document search and duplication. It created an appeals process for denied requests. It permitted courts to impose response deadlines as well as disciplinary action and penalties against government employees who deliberately and improperly withheld records. It instructed agencies to sever and release portions of records that were not subject to specified exemptions. It enabled courts to privately review and determine the legitimacy of requests denied for national security reasons, and it mandated agencies report each year on their FOI activities. However, the U.S. law has not been as user-friendly as that of other countries that have followed, and civil society constituencies had no input into the law, a factor Michenor (2011) argues can contribute to a FOI law’s accessibility.

FOI legislation began to gain traction in the latter half of the 20th century. The U.S. law became a model for many countries that followed, as did the laws of Sweden, Canada, and Australia within their own regions and legal traditions (Banisar, 2006). Western European and English-speaking countries were among the earliest adopters of the law. Finland passed a FOI law in 1951. Norway, France, and the Netherlands passed their laws in the 1970s, and Columbia, Denmark, Greece, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada followed suit in the 1980s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, freedom of information and government transparency were seen as important economic and political principles among countries transitioning from communist to democratic governance systems. Dozens of formerly communist countries, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, moved forward with laws designed to ensure access to government information (Birchall, 2011; Blanton, 2002). FOI laws allowed Central and Eastern European countries to obtain information about prior governments, to seek reprisal for what were seen as past injustices, and to join international organizations, such as the EU or NATO (Blanton, 2002; Byrne, 2003; Grigorescu, 2003). Worldwide adoption proceeded slowly, however. By 1990, only 14 countries had FOI laws.

Currently, more than half of the world’s countries had adopted FOI laws. FOI laws exist in nearly all European countries. In Latin America, despite a few early adopters (Colombia in 1985 and Belize in 1994), most countries enacted FOI laws after the year 2000. These include Mexico, Panama, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, El Salvador, and, most recently, Paraguay. Among Asian countries, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and even some cities within China adopted FOI laws in the 1990s, while India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, and Taiwan instituted theirs after 2000. In the Middle East, only Israel, Jordan, and Yemen have FOI laws. In Africa, Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe have FOI laws on the books, most of them passed in the 2000s or 2010s.2 However, many of these laws exist more on the books than in practice, including South Africa’s law, which is one of the most progressively written FOI laws in the world (Banisar, 2006).

Countries with more recent FOI laws have benefited from knowledge of the past experiences and best practices of others, enabling them to construct stronger FOI regimes. New laws may extend and harmonize FOI coverage across federal and local institutions, have broader definitions of what counts as information, or cover all bodies (public or private) that are government subsidized or perform government functions. They may specify public interest tests that require governments to balance their asserted interest in withholding information against the public’s interest in that information’s disclosure. They may also mandate the proactive publication of vital or frequently requested information. Many newer laws, like those in Mexico, India, the United Kingdom, and Germany, establish independent information commissions to handle appeals, enforce decisions, provide general oversight, and publicize the law. Information commissions can provide effective independent oversight and alleviate the need for those whose requests are denied to resort to lengthy and often prohibitively expensive court proceedings. Finally, a growing number of countries are adopting laws to protect government whistleblowers who call attention to people or organizations engaged in improper or illegal activity. Some of these laws, at least as written, are stronger and more modern than those currently governing the United States and Canada, two of the earliest countries to pass FOI laws (Banisar, 2006).

Countries have also taken advantage of the digital processing and networking capabilities of computers to innovate and strengthen FOI regimes. The ability to collect, process, store, and disseminate information digitally, the rise of the Internet as a public communication medium, and the recognition that governments produce information with public funds and under the auspices of the public interest have precipitated efforts to utilize networked technologies to facilitate information access. Newer FOI laws may require governments to proactively release important or commonly requested agency information online, as is the case in Poland and Estonia. Mexico’s FOIA, one of the more recent and more innovative, utilizes a web-based information portal that allows users to submit, track, and appeal information requests online, and to examine all submitted requests along with any public responses. In Turkey, people can also submit and track information requests online. Countries with older laws have amended them to enhance public access through new technologies. In the United States, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA, 1996) extended open records laws to digital information held by federal agencies and encouraged agencies to make information available through new technology. The purpose of the e-FOIA was to “foster democracy,” “improve public access,” ensure timely response times, and “maximize the usefulness” of information and records collected and maintained by the federal government (5 USCS §552 (2)). Under e-FOIA, agencies must index records in their information systems, make records available electronically within a year of their production, and release frequently requested records online (5 USCS §552 (2)(e)).

Common Components of FOI Laws

FOI laws around the world mandate that governments provide access to information about their activities, functioning, and decision-making, as well as other information they collect, such as information on the status of people, land, and resources within their borders. Nations may differ, however, on how to realize access to information in practice. Despite these differences, the FOI laws of different nations address many common components, including:

Who can request information

Who must provide information

What information is accessible

Proactive disclosure of information

What information is exempted

Mandated response times for requests

Appeals procedures for denied requests

Penalties for improperly withholding information

Fees for processing information requests

Annual government reports on the law’s usage

Although a comprehensive examination of how different countries treat each of these components is beyond the scope of this article, we will illustrate how countries may differ on these counts by comparing FOI laws in the United States and India. While the U.S. law is one of the earliest, the Indian law is one of the most recent and progressively formulated right to information laws among democratic countries (Centre for Law and Democracy, 2013; Michener, 2011).

In the United States, FOI is not a constitutional right. Nor do constitutionally protected free speech rights confer a right to access information. U.S. Freedom of Information law (as elaborated in the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, FOI Act amendments, and executive orders) allows any person, regardless of citizenship, to request records held by the federal government. To prevent government discrimination in information provision, people do not have to justify or explain why they want certain records. People can request information for any purpose, public or private. The law mandates that some federal agencies provide information when requested. These agencies include executive and military departments, government corporations, government-controlled corporations, executive branch offices (including the president’s executive office), and independent regulatory agencies, (5 USC §552(F), 2015). The law does not apply to the president, his advisers, the Congress, the federal courts, or to private bodies. Nor does it apply to state or local government agencies, which have their own distinct laws on open records and meetings. The law provides access to public information and records, including those related to policy and administration. Records subject to FOIA must be processed, maintained, and controlled by a government agency. The law does not apply to records produced for the government by private consultants. However, the law presumes that when the government contracts with private firms to maintain its records, these records are open (Middleton & Less, 2012, p. 584). The term records covers documents in a variety of reproducible formats, including print, audio, visual, and electronic, but not physical materials or objects.

The U.S. FOIA instructs federal agencies to disclose information that might be in the public interest whenever possible and to make new or frequently requested records available online when they have the capability. Agencies must also publish descriptions of their organizations, functions, procedures, and decision-making processes as well as their FOIA procedures in the Federal Register. Agencies must disclose documents in response to FOIA requests, unless these documents fall into one of nine exempt categories, intended to balance public’s interest in information access against the government’s interest in the confidentiality of some information. Exempt categories include information about national security, internal personnel and management rules and practices, business and commerce, internal memoranda circulated during policymaking and decision-making processes, personal privacy, certain law enforcement purposes, banking reports, and the location of wells. The law also allows for statutory exemptions, such as those excluding from the law’s coverage most information about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), student educational records, critical infrastructure information, and driver’s records.3 If a document contains exempt information, agencies should redact or delete this information and release portions of the document that are not exempt.

FOIA gives federal agencies 20 working days to respond to a request. Agency officials must inform people of their decision, including their reasons for denying a request. When a request is denied, information seekers can appeal this decision to the agency’s head, who then has 20 days to respond. Although the Office of Government Information Services was created to promote alternative dispute resolution between FOI applicants and agencies, requesters must resort to the federal district courts for a second level of appeal. Only courts may order the disclosure of documents or undertake sanctions or disciplinary actions against agencies that have improperly, arbitrarily, or capriciously withheld records. There is no fee to file a request. However, agencies charge different fees to fulfill the requests of different categories of FOI applicants. Commercial applicants must pay the full costs of searching for and copying information. Most other applicants receive two hours of free search time and the first 100 copies for free. Noncommercial applicants (including educators and the media) who seek and disseminate information that serves a broader public interest can have their fees waived or reduced. Finally, the law mandates that the attorney general submit an annual report to Congress about FOI usage, based on reports garnered from individual agencies. Data compiled for these reports includes the number and nature of denied FOI requests; the number, nature, and results of any appeals and court cases; the number of requests received, processed, and pending; the average and median response times for requests and appeals; the number of fee waiver requests granted and denied; and agency staff and funds devoted to processing FOI requests.

India’s law contrasts with that of the United States on many particulars, including the assertion of FOI as a right. In India, the supreme court has asserted that the right to information is an essential aspect of the constitutionally protected right to free speech (Banisar, 2006; People’s Union for Civil Liberties & Another v. Union of India, 2004; State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain, 1975; Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms, 2002). In 2005, India also passed a national Right to Information Act (RTIA), creating statutory provisions and protections for information rights. The RTIA sees access to information as a means to promote transparency and accountability in governance, the functioning of democracy, and the prevention of corruption. The law also takes into account the competing interests of government efficiency, limited fiscal resources, and the need to protect sensitive information. In comparison to the U.S. FOIA, who can request information is more narrowly defined, even while who must provide information and what information must be provided are more broadly and consistently applied across the states and central government. The RTIA gives all Indian citizens the right to access information controlled by public authorities. Public authorities are defined as any government body that is established, owned, or controlled by government. However, unlike the United States, this definition also includes nongovernmental bodies that are owned, controlled, or substantially financed (directly or indirectly) by the government. In addition, the law covers government authorities, including the legislature and the judiciary, operating at every level of governance, from the local to the national. The Act covers any information held or controlled by public authorities in any form. In additions to documents and records, applicants can ask to inspect materials, such as food subsidy or building materials samples. Government authorities must make available to citizens any information that the Indian parliament or state legislatures can obtain.

In order to facilitate access, public authorities are required to catalog and index their records, to place public records on computer networks within a reasonable time when possible, and to proactively publish information about important policy decisions. Public authorities must also publish details about their organization, function, and duties; the power and duties of their personnel; their decision-making procedures; their rules, regulations, instructions, and manuals; the categories of documents they hold; notice of whether their meetings are public; a directory of their personnel; their budgets and expenditures; how citizens can request information from them; and other information related to their operations and functions (Right to Information Act [RTIA], 2005). The law further instructs them “to provide as much information suo moto to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including Internet,” so that the public is less dependent on the Act to obtain information (RTIA, 2005). Indian law lists a number of exemptions, including information pertaining to national security or the strategic interests of the state; specific legal prohibitions; breaches of privilege accorded to the parliament or state legislature; commercial confidences, trade secrets, and intellectual property; fiduciary relationships; foreign government confidences; the physical safety of government informants on law and security matters; impediments to the investigation, apprehension or the prosecution of criminal offenders; cabinet papers, such as records of deliberation of the Council of Ministers and others; and personal information constituting an invasion of privacy (Naib, 2012). Some of these exemptions can be overridden, however, if a competent authority deems it in the larger public interest. The Act also exempts information maintained by 18 intelligence and security bodies, unless that information is relevant to allegations of corruption or human rights violations. Similar to the U.S. FOIA, the RTIA mandates that authorities sever exempt information from documents that may otherwise be provided.

Citizens may submit requests, orally or in writing, to an authority’s public information officer (PIO). They do not have to give reasons for wanting particular information. PIOs have 30 days to provide the information or reject the request. If the information sought resides with another public authority, PIOs must transfer the application and immediately notify the applicant. The appeals process for rejected or unanswered requests starts with the senior officer of the public authority, who has 30 days to respond to the appeal. Applicants seeking information from state authorities can undertake a second appeals process through a state information commission, while applicants petitioning central authorities can make their second appeal to the central information commission. Information commissions are autonomous bodies, authorized to make binding decisions. As a final resort, applicants can take their cases to either a state high court or the Indian supreme court. Officials who improperly withhold information can face fines and disciplinary proceedings, including additional penalties levied for every day that information is withheld. By law, applicants pay 10 rupees to submit an application and 2 rupees per page copied. Lastly, the state and central information commissions must submit annual reports to their respective legislatures, detailing information about the number of requests made to each public authority; the number of and reasons for rejected applications; the number, nature, and outcomes of any appeals; any disciplinary actions taken against officers administering the Act; the amount of RTI fees collected by public authorities; other efforts made to carry out the Act; and recommendations for the reform of RTIA procedures among particular public authorities.

This brief overview of FOI law in India and the United States illustrates the many substantive components along which countries may differ. While the U.S. FOIA is more narrowly conceived in terms of whom and what it covers and institutes a relatively burdensome appeals process, the Indian RTIA is significantly stronger with respect to the scope of coverage, grounds for exemptions and refusals, and associated appeals processes. In the United States, the courts handle appeals. Although the courts prioritize the hearing of FOI appeals and can grant attorney fees and other costs to plaintiffs, judicial recourse is an option most individuals cannot afford to exercise. This comparison is consistent with the findings of a 2014 global survey of the legal frameworks of FOI laws that rated countries according to the rights of access specified, the scope of coverage, procedures for making requests, exceptions and refusals, appeals processes, sanctions and protections, and promotional measures (Access Info Europe & the Centre for Law and Democracy, n.d.). According to the survey, India was rated the 5th strongest country with respect to the formulation of their RTI laws, while the United States was rated 45th (see Usage and implementation, however, are another matter.

FOI Users and Usage

FOI laws generally presume the existence of an active public that will put forward information requests. Yet understanding who uses FOI around the world and how it is used can be difficult. Many countries do not collect quantitative data about FOI users and usage. Some countries, citing individual privacy concerns, prevent the collection of this data. Others, particularly developing countries, may lack the will or capacity to collect systematic and reliable data. Moreover, quantitative data may be of limited use in measuring FOI’s significance or effects. Qualitative evidence and anecdotes from many countries suggest that even when usage is weak or minimal in terms of overall numbers, information obtained through FOI requests may nonetheless have significant societal effects. FOI requests have been used to effectively address both individual and public grievances. Thus, quantity of use may not be the only or best measure of FOI’s effects. From the perspective of democratic theory, what matters is that FOI laws are there when they are needed.

Studies of FOI usage suggest that while a small number of people submit FOI requests worldwide, this number is growing. In Britain, 0.2% of the population makes FOI requests to the government each year (Hazell & Worthy, 2010). Similarly, in Ireland, Canada, and Australia, only one or two per thousand of the population make a FOI request yearly (Hazell, 1989). In some countries, a pent-up demand for information has led to massive numbers of requests in the years immediately following the passage of FOI laws. In India, which has one of the most progressive and active FOI regimes, citizens submitted an impressive 2 million requests in the law’s first two years (Roberts, 2010). Three years after Thailand’s Official Information Act took effect, nearly half a million ordinary citizens had requested government-held information, with requests from citizens outnumbering those from nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and oppositional parties (Chua, 2002). Empirical evidence suggests that FOI requests have slowly grown in South America, Asia, and Russia (Darch & Underwood, 2010), where they are used to address citizens’ rights in multiple domains (Calland & Bentley, 2013; Jenkins, 2007; Roberts, 2010). However, the number of requests varies considerably from one country to another in a given year, and the evolution of usage across countries can differ greatly (Holsen & Pasquier, 2012). For example, Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and Ireland have a relatively heavy and growing number of FOI users compared to Germany and Switzerland, who have a considerably smaller and relatively stagnant number of users.

Regardless of the percentage of the population that uses FOI, abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that FOI law has positive effects. In India, civil society actors have actively pursued and made use of FOI rights to address an array of community issues. Particularly impressive is the work of the Rajasthan-based group Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (Association for the Empowerment of Workers and Farmers), which has used FOI legislation to fight against corruption and to advance the socio-economic interests of the poor (Calland & Bentley, 2013). Indian citizens and civil society groups have relied on FOI legislation to monitor the government’s delivery of food subsidies to the poor, payment of public wages and pensions, provision of scholarships and school uniforms, completion of infrastructure and building projects, accounting on bank statements, provision of electricity, and provision of teachers in public schools (Roberts, 2010, p. 927). FOI has enabled Indian citizens to gain newfound access to information pertaining to development projects, agriculture, the environment, and elections (Jenkins, 2007; Singh, 2007). Examining FOI law’s effects in developing countries, the INGO Article 19 (2007) found that the law has helped citizens and civil society groups access information on the rights to education (Thailand, Uganda, Argentina), to a safe environment (Chile, Ecuador, Nigeria, Uganda, Malaysia), to medicine and healthcare (South Africa, Nigeria), and to food (India, Argentina). In the United States, FOI has enabled environmental groups to collect data on the release of toxic chemicals by manufacturers and consequently to make industry more accountable to citizens (Van den Burg, 2004).

Few studies examine the identity, strategies, and motivations of FOI requesters. However, those that do suggest that, within particular countries, some categories of actors constitute more frequent FOIA users. Frequent information requesters include nongovernmental organizations, journalists, activists, and engaged members of the public (Dunion, 2011). Businesses are another frequent user category. In Great Britain, Worthy (2010) found that private individuals (40%), academics or students (10%), campaign workers (10%), journalists (10%), and commercial business (7%) requested information most often. During 2000–2001, 40% of requests in Canada came from business and only 30% from the public (AIRTF, 2002, cited in Hazell & Worthy, 2010). Similarly, commercial entities in the United States are responsible for the most FOI requests (Piotrowski & Ryzin, 2007). In Ireland between 1998 and 2007, the public (which included nongovernmental organizations) made up around 50% of requesters, while the media accounted for 15% and business around 7%. The RTI Assessment and Analysis Group and National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (2009, p. 8) found that users of India’s RTI Act were overwhelmingly male (more than 90%) and that few requests came from the very poor or from marginalized groups. In Southeastern Europe, Camaj (2015) found that the most frequent users of FOI laws in Montenegro and Albania are civil society and advocacy groups, while in Kosovo journalists comprised 61% of requesters.

Motivations for FOI requests may be political, professional, or personal. Michener and Worthy (2015) propose an information-gathering matrix that categorizes FOI requests according to four main purposes: (1) keeping government accountable (public requesters with political goals), (2) ensuring fairness (private requesters with political goals), (3) informing to empower (public requesters with nonpolitical goals), and (4) securing benefits (private requesters with nonpolitical goals). The majority of FOI requests submitted by individual citizens fall into the fourth category. Citizens’ FOI requests most commonly ask for access to personal data related to access to services, pensions, employment, immigration, criminal records, veteran’s affairs, Social Security, taxation, property records, etc. (Hazell, 1989). For example, a systematic survey of FOI users in Great Britain found that about 80% of FOI requests said their requests pertained to personal information (such as academia or hobbies), while 22% said their requests were related to political activity (Worthy, 2010). Yet, this distinction between the political and the personal may be spurious. As Hazell (1989, p. 199) notes, individuals make requests not out of “idle curiosity” but in order to redress grievances related to government decision-making. Moreover, a personal request to see how a college entrance exam was graded or why a job application was denied may have political implications and ramifications in countries where government decision making is arbitrary, corrupt, or otherwise flawed. Personal requests aside, many scholars argue that organized and strategic information requests mounted by civil society groups are often the most successful at bringing about social change (Camaj, 2015; Darch & Underwood, 2010; Neuman & Calland, 2007). Frequently among the most visible FOI users, civil society groups can use FOI to strategically uncover public information and to advocate for systemic changes in government behavior and decision-making (Worthy, 2010).

Barriers and Challenges to Accessing Information Through FOI Laws

The performance of FOI laws varies greatly from country to country, with significant differences found not only between developed and emerging democracies but also among more mature democracies. For example, Hazell and Worthy (2010) found that, among the Western Commonwealth countries, the New Zealand FOI regime performed the best, given its progressive openness and strong support for transparency. The United Kingdom was ranked second, with its relatively high rates of disclosure, a strong information commissioner, and relative political support. Despite relatively high levels of use and disclosure, Ireland and Australia’s FOI regimes experienced a high number of appeals, lack of political support, and restrictive reform. Canada was ranked last as “it has continually suffered from a combination of low use, low political support and a weak Information Commissioner since its inception” (Hazell & Worthy, 2010, p. 358).

Scholars have attributed differences in FOI implementation and use around the world to several barriers and challenges. These include (1) how FOI legislation is written, (2) awareness levels about access to information rights, (3) the structures of government agencies and institutions, and (4) broader political and social conditions. We have already addressed differences in how FOI laws are written, including treatment of the law’s component parts. In many countries, FOI laws are weak in terms of coverage, sanctions, implementation mechanisms, publicity mandates, and other components that can contribute to the law’s successful use. In the remainder of this section, we review the other factors and conditions affecting the law.

Public awareness of FOI laws is essential to their use, since information disclosure generally relies on the public submitting information requests. As Roberts claims, “One of the most substantial [barriers to access] is a simple lack of awareness about rights granted by [FOI], particularly among marginalized groups” (2010, p. 8). For instance, he found that in India only 4 to 15% of the public was aware of FOI laws, with higher levels of awareness among the urban middle class and men. Similarly, Holsen and Pasquier (2012) found that a major reason for low levels of FOI requests in Switzerland and Germany was a lack of public awareness, abetted by the failure of key groups—government, the media, or civil society actors—to promote the law. Neither country’s FOI laws mandated that the government publicize the law. In Switzerland, neither civil society groups nor the media sought to raise awareness of the law, while in Germany, civil society groups’ efforts to promote the law failed to gain media attention. Lack of knowledge about how to file a FOI request was an additional barrier to use (Roberts, 2010).

In addition, the governments of different countries, and even individual agencies within countries, may fail to comply with their own FOI laws in varying degrees (Darch & Underwood, 2010; Lidberg, 2009; Open Society Justice Institute, 2006). Reputable organizations have reported low rates of compliance with FOI requests among different countries. For example, in 2011 Associated Press journalists submitted FOI requests for information about individual arrests and convictions to 105 countries but received complete information from only 14 within their FOI-specified time limits (Mendoza, 2011). In another example, only 12 of 80 FOI requests submitted as part of a campaign to understand progress toward the UN Millennium Development Goals yielded the information sought (Access Info Europe, 2011). Research has shown that disparities exist in the implementation of FOI laws between more affluent and established democracies and poorer and younger democracies (Mason, 2010; Open Society Justice initiative, 2006). However, some exceptions exist, such as India, where FOI law has received immense public support and attention. Interestingly, the Associated Press (2011) study found that some newer democracies, including India, were more responsive to journalists’ FOI requests than the United States. Nevertheless, citizens in African, Latin American, Southeast Asian, and Eastern European countries have struggled to use even well-written FOI laws. A group monitoring implementation in Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone received no response for about 50% of the 393 FOI requests they submitted; only 13% of their requests ultimately yielded information (Media Rights Agenda, 2010). Even though Mexico has one of the best designed and most emulated FOI laws among developing countries, implementation has been difficult. Mexico’s challenges to implementation include weak adherence to the formal rule of law, an organizational culture of closure, and fear of informal sanctions for releasing information (Gill & Hughes, 2005). Despite being in effect for more than a decade, Peru’s FOI law has not prevented many governmental agencies from operating under a veil of secrecy and withholding official information (Burt & Cagley, 2013). The drive toward open access in Eastern European is still tarnished by “deep-rooted social and political traditions of blocking information but also by the traditional style of government,” characterized by administrative secrecy and inadequate recordkeeping (Szekely, 2007, p. 130). However, some countries in Southeastern Europe have experienced better compliance trends as the public demand for access grows and as government agencies become more efficient (Camaj, 2015).

Barriers to implementation and use may stem from deficiencies of government capacity and will. Governmental capacity refers to the material, economic, and knowledge resources necessary to respond to FOI requests. FOI law requires both financial and human resources to process requests. Many developing or newly democratic countries lack the resources to support administrative activities and organized record-keeping (Roberts, 2006) and operate in economic and political environments that make capacity building difficult. For example, in Southeastern Europe, Camaj (2015) found that noncompliance with FOI law stems from the limited administrative capacity held in place by past communist legacies, struggling economies, and political instability. Many government bodies in this region lack the record-keeping infrastructure and budgetary support necessary to implement FOI mechanisms. In addition, frequent political turnover and the politicization of government bureaucrats have made the training and knowledge development needed to build administrative capacity around FOI more difficult. Even in a developed and wealthy democracy like the United States, many agencies lack the capacity to respond to FOI requests in a timely manner, creating long delays and backlogs around information disclosure (Middleton & Less, 2012, p. 587). Failure to implement the law can also reflect a lack of political will related either to the internal political cultures of governmental and bureaucratic administrations or to the external political culture created by interactions between the state and civil society (including citizens, national advocacy groups, and international organizations) (Holsen & Pasquier, 2012; Neuman & Calland, 2007; Roberts, 1998; Snell, 2002). Different political cultures, along with the degree to which democracy has taken hold, in different countries can help explain some disparities in FOI implementation. Officials may subvert FOI requests through overly broad interpretations of FOI exemptions and the adoption of technocratic and instrumentalist approaches to the law that thwart its use and undermine its purpose (Camaj, 2015; Sharma, 2013).

Finally, FOI usage may be stymied by socio-economic disparities, low literacy rates, and poverty (Darch & Underwood, 2005; Roberts, 2010). Webb (2012) points out that social, cultural, economic, gender, and literacy factors can prohibit the poor and marginalized within Indian society from engaging with the Indian bureaucracy and therefore exercising their right to information. Although Indian FOI law was designed with poor and disenfranchised users in mind, these users may not possess the bureaucratic literacy necessary to overcome India’s overly technocratic and largely opaque bureaucracy, at least not without the help of civil society organizations that often act as mediators in this process (Sharma, 2013). Researchers have argued that in Africa postcolonial legacies, socio-economic disparities, civil conflicts, poor infrastructures, and the politics of patronage further hamper the usage of FOI laws (Darch & Underwood, 2010, p. 206). For Darch and Underwood (2005, p. 83) the experience of South Africa “exemplifies the proposition that the less homogenous a society and the lower the general level of education, the harder it is to develop sustainable and useful FOI practice.


Today, the majority of governments around the world have embraced the principle of freedom of information. Moreover, there is a growing global consensus in favor of open government and freedom of information, and governments around the world must justify the need for secrecy.

Evaluations of the impact of FOI laws have focused on quantitative measures of FOI usage and qualitative accounts of its effects. Empirical evidence suggests that FOI laws have contributed to government transparency. Along with the gradual adoption of FOI laws, countries are gradually improving access to government information and engaging in proactive information disclosure. Huge disparities are evident in the freedom of information regimes of countries with and without FOI laws (Open Society Justice Institute, 2006), and countries with a longer history of FOI laws (such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom) also tend to have more open and transparent governments (Hazell & Worthy, 2010; Hazell et al., 2010; Owen, Cooke, & Matthews, 2013). Several studies of the effects of FOI law on Great Britain have concluded that it increased government transparency (Chapman & Hunt, 2006; Hazell et al., 2010; Owen, Cooke, & Matthews, 2013). Another study found that FOI laws led to more open government personnel management practices in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (Hazell, 1989). In India, civil society activists view FOI as a vital and decentralized tool for transforming an opaque and largely corrupt political culture into one that is more open and democratic.

However, even though FOI laws are no longer a “luxury” enjoyed by only a few older democracies (Hazell & Worthy, 2010), some scholars point out that these laws are not always available in practice due to low usage and noncompliance on the part of the government (see Mendoza, 2011; Darch & Underwood, 2010; Mason, 2010; Media Rights Agenda, 2010; Open Society Justice Institute, 2006, for a comparative examination). Quantitative data confirm low levels of citizen awareness and relatively small numbers of FOI users in many countries (Hazell & Worthy, 2010; Roberts, 1998; Worthy, 2012). In many countries, journalists’ use of FOI is limited (Lidberg, 2003, 2009; Ricketson & Snell, 2002; Snell, 2002), and political legislators have also been slow to use FOI (Hazell, 1989; Worthy, 2012). However, some scholars caution against quantitative usage data as the only measure of FOI success. Particular instances of FOI usage can have enormous relevance and effect. “If half a dozen access requests are all that is needed to bring down a corrupt administration, then the social and political impact of freedom of information is assured,” claim Darch and Underwood (2010, p. 112). FOI can be a useful accountability tool for the right user in the right time and place, says Worthy (2012, p. 16). It can have significant consequences in instances where government actors make decisions that are opaque, arbitrary, or corrupt (Darch & Underwood, 2010) and can be used by citizens to redress grievances when the government fails to deliver services, benefits, or public works (Roberts, 2010, p. 927). A plethora of anecdotal evidence suggests that these laws can help marginalized actors fight for their rights and improve democratic governance. Nevertheless, the challenges to information access are many, including weaknesses in the law’s design, low citizen awareness, inadequate institutional procedures, and broader political and social conditions.

While FOI is a mechanism for transparency and accountability, it is also a necessary element of human rights, political rights, and participatory democratic theory. As a mechanism for transparency and accountability, FOI can contribute to better and more democratic governance, but it cannot achieve those goals on its own. Indeed, the evidence suggests that “FOI may be an integral part of an evolving democratic system, but it cannot bring about change by itself” (Stubs, 2008, p. 681). Nor can it “tackle the complex, deep-rooted issues that prevent increased participation” alone (Worthy, 2010, p. 578). Such changes require a deepening of democracy that includes a strengthening of accountability processes within institutions and greater opportunities and resources for participation in governance. Administrative reforms, including FOI laws, do not operate in a vacuum but rather within a “political context that may weaken or bolster” their practical outcomes (Julnes & Holzer, 2001, p. 696). Obstacles to accountability in emerging democracies include a weak civil society and weak adherence to the rule of law. Although FOI laws cannot transform governments or guarantee accountability on their own, they remain a necessary precondition for good governance and for democratic participation. FOI is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for more accountable government.

The chances that FOI will contribute to greater transparency increase with greater and more effective use by civil society members, including activists, the media, and political opposition parties. These groups can use FOI to ask and answer significant questions about the workings, practices, processes, and decisions of government and its subsidiary actors. Information obtained through FOI can contribute to public understandings of government activities, societal problems, and social injustices. Efforts are needed to increase public awareness of information rights, to simplify and strengthen FOI procedures, and to address its barriers and challenges. Moreover, the ability of FOI law to facilitate more transparent governance depends on administrative capacity and will, efficient supervisory mechanisms, and strong adherence to the rule of law. While these factors can contribute to stronger FOI regimes within countries, it is also true that FOI laws can help expose and reform democratic deficits and push governments toward broader democratic reforms.


The major body of research pertaining to freedom of information has focused on legal analysis, scrutinizing the interpretation and functionality of FOI laws (Snell, 2004). The work of Mark Bovens (2002) and Alasdair Roberts (2001) argues for the necessity and functionality of information rights along with social, civil, and political rights. David Banisar (2006) and Toby Mendel (2003, 2008) offer two important surveys of FOI legislation around the globe. Both these works provide a thorough description of established international standards in FOI. In her edited book Transparency and Secrecy: A Reader Linking Literature and Contemporary Debate, Suzanne J. Piotrowski (2010) brings together a collection of materials from renowned authors that discuss the underlying principles of FOI and present country-based case studies of the tensions between transparency and other laws, from the municipal to the multi-national level of practice. Taking a historical perspective, Michael Schudson (2015) explains what freedom of information means, how it works, and why it has become globally significant. The latest edition of Birkinshaw’s Freedom of Information: The Law, the Practice and the Ideal (2010) updates the law governing freedom of information in Great Britain, examining the relationship between law, political culture, and information control. It draws on examples and developments from around the world and examines the interrelationship between domestic, European, and global provisions governing access to information.

With the recent passage of freedom of information laws in many countries, research has begun to focus on the measurement of the practical outcomes of these laws. Traditionally, evaluation research measures the impact of a policy against its stated goals. Evaluations may be “formative” or “summative,” focusing on the early stages of policy implementation or its subsequent impact on the problems it seeks to address (Hazell et al., 2010). FOI research has mainly examined what is often considered a first-order goal of this legislation, namely the degree to which FOI laws aid in government transparency. The Open Society Justice Initiative (2006) offers a comparative perspective on the implementation of FOI laws in 14 countries. Hazell and Worthy (2010), Hazell (1989), and Roberts (2006) provide a comparative examination of Western countries that have a longer experience with FOI. Other case studies provide insights into the implementation of FOI laws in developing countries (Darch & Underwood, 2010), including India (Roberts, 2010), China (Piotrowski, Zhang, Lin, & Yu, 2009), Mexico (Gill & Hughes, 2005), Peru (Burt & Cagley, 2013), Southeastern Europe (Camaj, 2015), and South Africa (Darch & Underwood, 2005).

Research that explores the impact of FOI legislation on second-order goals, including socio-economic factors such as accountability, corruption, media freedom, and citizens engagement, often provides anecdotal evidence from individual countries. Nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups focused on government transparency and accountability often provide such information (see Article 19, 2007; Banisar, 2006). Few academic studies investigate the broader impact of FOI on social change or the socio-economic factors influencing the implementation, uses, or effects of FOI. One notable exception is Hazell et al.’s (2010) work in Great Britain. Based on interviews and surveys with FOI requesters, their book offers a unique insight into how the Freedom of Information Act 2000 works, exploring its impact not only on government transparency and accountability but also on citizens’ understanding of decision-making, political trust, and participation in the political process. They argue that FOI has had little effect on people’s knowledge and understanding about how government works and the processes behind decision-making. Contrary evidence is provided by case studies from India where, with the intervention of civil society groups, citizens have been able to gain knowledge and address a range of socio-economic problems (Calland & Bentley, 2013; Jenkins, 2007; Roberts, 2010; Singh, 2007). Other scholars have examined the relationship between FOI laws and media freedom (Lamble, 2004; Lidberg, 2009; Nam, 2012; Relly, 2012), corruption (Nam, 2012; Tavares, 2007), and quality of governance (Islam, 2006; Kaufmann & Bellver, 2005). Overall, this research also provides conflicting results, which beg for future systematic exploration.

Empirical research should move beyond silver bullet assumptions of a direct relationship between FOI and various desired outcomes. Instead, it should be sensitive to factors that moderate and intervene in this relationship. At a micro level, we need a clearer picture of (1) what motivates citizens to engage in FOI demand and government agents to comply with FOI requests, (2) what citizens do with the information they obtain via FOI mechanisms, and (3) how FOI alters citizen self-efficacy and participation. At the societal level, research needs to focus on structural conditions that impact FOI effectiveness, like the administrative capacity, economic development, oversight institutions, rule of law, and socio-economic factors. When judging the effects of FOI policies, the “social and political contexts and specific histories of different countries” need to be taken into account (Darch & Underwood, 2010, p. 7) given that they govern citizens’ incentives to participate and the extent to which information obtained by FOI is likely to make a difference (Joshi, 2013). A major lesson drawn from research so far is that freedom of information laws, and the “leverage rights” that users derive from them, are part of complex processes requiring multiple methods of investigation and sensitive theoretical elaboration.

Further Reading

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  • Schudson, M. (2015). The rise of the right to know: Politics and the culture of transparency, 1945–1975. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.


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  • 1. This section draws heavily from Banisar’s (2006) excellent overview of the FOI law development around the world.

  • 2. Up-to-date information on the status of countries FOI regimes can be found at

  • 3. See Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949, Homeland Security Act of 2002, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 2015, and Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994.