As FBI, others move to FOIA portals, email options disappear

Emma Lux | Freedom of Information | News | February 17, 2017

The Federal Bureau of Investigation no longer will allow individuals seeking public records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to file requests via email, according to several reports, and several other agencies are following suit.

The FBI's FOIA page already has removed any mention of an email submission option, though it has notified some requesters that it will allow email requests until the end of this month. According to the agency page, requesters now have to submit written requests by fax or standard mail, or they can use an online portal system called eFOIA. The FBI used to allow for requests to be filed via email in addition to the online portal system.

“With this full implementation, eFOIA will provide the FBI with an automated process for the receipt and opening of requests,” said that FBI in an emailed statement to the Reporters Committee. “Given the FBI’s high volume of requests, this will significantly increase efficiency.”

The FBI made no comment regarding why fax and standard mail will still be allowed, while email, the most ubiquitous form of communication, will not.

The Daily Dot first reported last week that the FBI would also place limits on the new eFOIA portal: only one request could be filed per day, only certain types of requests could be fulfilled, and requesters had to disclose personal information to process the request on the portal. The news site issued an updated report the next day, however, saying that once the system is running the FBI will allow multiple requests per day, allow requests of all types, and limit the amount of personal information that needs to be disclosed on the form.

Still, many open government advocates are expressing concerns about the FBI’s decision to stop allowing emailed FOIA requests, even with the promised revisions to the portal. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a long time government transparency advocate, wrote a letter to the FBI’s Record Dissemination Section last Thursday urging the FBI to continue accepting emailed requests. In the letter, he points out that the revisions to the portal do not correct all of its limitations, and argues that this change in policy “may place an unnecessary burden on those requesters who must now send requests to the FBI by fax or letter.”

Notably, while the FBI issued a statement regarding revisions to the limitations of the site on Tuesday, it did not issue a statement when it initially removed the email option. Journalist Michael Best said that he first realized that the FBI had changed their policy when he attempted to file a FOIA request via email. The FBI’s email response included notice of the change.

“I found a FOIA email they sent from Thursday with the notice slipped in there,” he told the Reporters Committee. “The closest they came to announcing it on their website was removing information about submitting through email and (I believe) all copies of the FOIA request email address.”

The FBI is not the only government agency to remove its FOIA request email option from its website without notice. Journalist Christopher Collins told the Reporters Committee that he tried to file a FOIA request with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection using an old email address. When he sent the email, it bounced back to him, with a notice that read, “This email address is no longer accepting correspondence” and directed him to an online FOIA request portal.

Like the FBI, the CBP published no information on its website regarding the change in policy. A spokeswoman for the CBP told the Reporters Committee in a phone interview that “the web portal helps them keep track and report on the inquiries they’re getting.”

When asked why the CBP still allows a mail and fax option, but not an email option, Mosher said, “I believe that the law requires the mail option and until they update the law to require email, it’s not required.”

Unlike the FBI, the CBP does not have its own online portal system. Instead, it uses FOIA Online, an online portal used by fifteen government agencies. Of the fifteen, only four still allow for emailed FOIA requests. The others rely solely on the portal, fax, and standard mail.

Among the 11 FOIA Online agencies that have recently stopped accepting emailed FOIA requests are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce, and the Federal Communications Commission.

An FCC official said that the Commission stopped accepting emailed FOIA requests in 2015 “as part of a general update to its FOIA regulations.” The EPA and Commerce did not respond to the Reporters Committee’s request for comment.