President Signs Law to Improve Freedom of Information

On June 30, 2016, President Obama signed a law aimed at strengthening the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Freedom of Information Improvement Act of 2016 implements policies to increase the transparency by the U.S. federal government. These important changes come on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the original FOIA going into effect.

Background: 2009 Presidential Mandate

On his first day in office, President Obama issued a memorandum that directed government agencies to favor disclosure to the public. The memorandum set forth a policy of timely information disclosure and increased openness and transparency by the federal government.

Increased FOIA Filings and Resources Since 2009

Since 2009, the government has processed more than 4.6 million FOIA requests and made publically available more than 180,000 federal datasets and collections. There is now a centralized FOIA resource and a shared FOIA case-management system and public portal. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also has a mobile FOIA app, due to the large volume of immigration-related FOIA requests.

The Obama administration has provided extensive FOIA outreach, established a FOIA ombudsman, and formed a federal advisory committee for FOIA. More details on these activities are available in the MurthyDotCom NewsBrief, Improved FOIA System for Immigration-Related Requests (20.Mar.2014).

Summary of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016

The FOIA Improvement Act lays a foundation for one consolidated FOIA portal for all federal government agencies; prior to the enactment of the bill, 12 agencies were already using this online system. The law also curtails how and to what extent the federal government can deny a records request under any of the nine exemptions provided for under FOIA. The new law further places a 25-year limit on withholding information under “exemption 5,” which allows the government to deny a FOIA request for privileged inter- and intra-agency documents, such as privileged attorney work product. Prior to this, such documents could be withheld indefinitely.

The FOIA Improvement Act also creates a new chief FOIA officers council to work with stakeholders inside and outside of the government to identify and address the biggest problems the public encounters when trying to access records via FOIA. The council also looks into the “release to one is a release to all” presumption by having all documents released three or more times under FOIA online.


The streamlined policies and transparency should help to obtain information through FOIA filings. This is of particular importance in the immigration context, given the massive number of immigration-related FOIA requests that are made each year.


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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.