Freedom of Information
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.
Freedom of information (FOI) laws around the world, also known as right to information and access to information laws, establish rights and procedures around access to public information. This article reviews normative assumptions 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, process 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.