Understanding the Freedom of Information Act

We talk a lot about the need for email archiving with clients, but for those just looking into these tools, we often get questions about the regulations behind the technology; the Freedom of Information Act.  Understanding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and how it affects businesses at all levels is not easy. Public and private organizations are impacted differently but below are the basic principles of the law.

Understanding the FOIA starts with realizing that the Act was originally signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966. This Act gives a person the right to request access to Federal records so long as those records are not protected from release by one of nine the FOIA exemptions. The institution to whom the request has been made must then provide the information requested within 20 working days.

At the time, email wasn’t even a consideration, but because the law covers most forms of communications and hasn’t been significantly changed over the past half century, email falls under its purview. At the State level, laws of a similar nature have been adopted which are often referred to as “Sunshine” laws.

Ultimately, the goal of these laws is to make the government more transparent to the people being governed.  With the proliferation of digital communications compounding the volume of communications, this has become increasingly more complex. Email in particular presents a huge challenge because people are quick to write and send messages without thinking; and entire conversations can span dozens if not hundreds of separate emails over long periods of time.

When first enacted, our representatives never imagined the volume of data necessary. Our job now is being able to find and deliver all of this information within the 20 day window; and that’s where email archiving solutions play an important role in complying with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).