June 26, 2017

Opening Government: On the Limits of FOIA and the Metaphor of Transparency

At a recent symposium (“Piracy and the Politics of Policing: Legislating and Enforcing Copyright Law”) sponsored by the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal, I was invited to respond to an excellent paper by David Levine on secrecy, national security, and the denial of public access to documents from the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiation process. Dave argues in his paper for an amendment to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that would create a qualified public right to “foreign relations” national security information. Had such an amendment been in place at the time of the ACTA negotiations, the Office of the United States Trade Representative would not have been able to invoke FOIA’s national security exemption—a dubious invocation, at best—to deny public requests for documents that were made under FOIA by public interest groups like Public Knowledge.

Responding to Dave’s article got me thinking about the use of “transparency” as a metaphor for openness in government, the use of FOIA as a mechanism for ensuring such openness, and the ways in which proponents of greater public involvement in policy-making (among whom I count myself) may disserve the cause by focusing too single-mindedly on access to information and the right to know, both of which are operationalized through FOIA. In my response to Dave’s article, a relatively short piece that I’ve posted to SSRN, I try to articulate the limits of FOIA as a mechanism for open government:
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