FBI Drops FOI-By-Email

 

The Daily Dot reported Monday, Feb. 6, that the FBI will stop taking Freedom of Information Act requests via email on March 1.

Your options will be to use a new eFOIPA portal on the agency’s website, send the FBI a fax or send a request by regular mail. (The “P” is for the Privacy Act. Dual-purpose, you see.)

The creation of a dedicated portal to handle requests of any sort should be a cause for celebrating. After all, a portal suggests something easy to use, customer-friendly and, most important, simple.

Unfortunately, the FBI portal is cumbersome, a little intrusive and not easily understood unless you have a lot of experience with the agency and the FOIA.

Monday’s Daily Dot report, and a later TechCrunch article, highlighted the FBI’s decision to stop accepting email FOI requests and reversion to fax and snail mail.

As Taylor Hatmaker put it on TechCrunch:

“In lieu of its popular email service, the FBI suggests sending a fax or snail mail, a procedural change that has more to do with obstructing the law than a dearth of resources.”

Exactly the thought that crossed more than a few journalists’ minds, I’m sure.

So, what was/is wrong with the FBI’s eFOIPA process?

For one thing, as SPJ FOI Committee member Jonathan Peters pointed out in a tweet, it has normal business hours: 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. As Jonathan asked: Why?

For another, the portal’s landing page contains a “terms of service” agreement. Until Tuesday, it noted that only certain types of requests would be handled through the online request system. All other requests would be handled by fax or paper.

Portal requests would not be accepted for agency emails and other documents. Requesters could submit only one request per day and one request per submission. The portal also limited requests to 3,000 characters.

All of those restrictions would seem to violate the intent and spirit of the FOIA. They also lend supporting evidence to those who believe the FBI is less interested in following the law and more invested in obstructing those who would use it.

The Daily Dot’s Andrew Couts and Dell Cameron reported Tuesday afternoon that the FBI was removing its restrictions and would accept all requests via the eFOIPA portal. The agency also said the portal would operate 24 hours a day.

But that still leaves the “terms of service” agreement, which you have to check in order to proceed with a request. Why? Why not just provide notes/warnings/what have you and let it go at that?

Once past the “terms of service,” the requester is greeted with a number of personal questions – address, phone number and a few others that seem unnecessary. In fact, the FBI said in a statement Tuesday that the phone number was only required during testing of the system.

Indeed, the agency told The Daily Dot that it’s had the portal under development for two years. It says on the landing page that the latest iteration is the second beta test, prior to the March 1 public release.

I suggest the FBI hold off and get a developer who understands what users want and need in a government-agency interface.

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