The Freedom of Information Act, enacted in 1967 to make federal records accessible to the public, has widely been known as a means for journalists to obtain government data and demand accountability.
But a new study by data analyst Max Galka for FOIA Mapper shows that the majority of FOIA requests aren't made by journalists -- in fact, journalists only account for 7.6% of the requests. Bob talks to him about how FOIA is used by businesses, law firms, and even political party organizations to use government data for their own profit.
If Leopold is a FOIA terrorist, data mapper Max Galka has located FOIA ISIS, and it isn’t who you think. Journalists account for a mere 7.6% of requests under the Freedom of Information Act. By contrast, businesses, from consumer brands to law firms to hedge funds, account for 50% of those requests because information is power and power has cash value. Max, welcome to On the Media.
MAX GALKA: Hi Bob, glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: What was the process for trying to figure out the pie chart of requests?
MAX GALKA: It's something that I've been wondering about for a long time and so have many other people, but the truth is it’s a very difficult thing to get to the bottom of because the only place where that information is stored is in these documents that are called FOIA logs, which are basically each agency list of prior requests. So all the information is out there, the problem is that you normally have to ask for it by request, which can take months or even years.
BOB GARFIELD: Wait, wait, wait, you have to submit a FOIA request to get the FOIA request log.
MAX GALKA: You have to, you have to FOIA the FOIAs, yes. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] But, of course, you do.
MAX GALKA: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: It wasn’t Jason Leopold at the top of the list, nor the Associated Press nor The New York Times nor journalism, in general, but businesses. And five companies alone account [LAUGHS] for 11% of at least the 229,000 FOIA requests that you reviewed. Who are they?
MAX GALKA: Those five businesses all request almost exclusively from the SEC.
BOB GARFIELD: Securities and Exchange Commission.
MAX GALKA: Correct. Each of these guys is just requesting information about every company under the sun, and they sell a paid research product for institutional investors. I can’t speak to these documents at the SEC but I did look back over their annual FOIA reports and I can see that the total cost to them for processing all FOIA requests during the last 10 years was about 52 million.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Yikes. But they charge a fee for fulfilling requests.
There's some revenue to offset that.
MAX GALKA: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: How much have they taken in?
MAX GALKA: Yeah, so in theory, if you're requesting information from an agency and you're using it for a commercial purpose you should have to pay for the cost of processing those records. But during that whole period, what they’ve taken in is about 600,000, so –
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] So –
MAX GALKA: - not a whole lot.
BOB GARFIELD: So, the taxpayers are only footing the bill for 51.4 million of the 52 million.
MAX GALKA: If you're requesting the data as a media organization, you can request a lot, up to a very large amount of records and it’s still free. So a number of these requesters that are getting away without paying much money are doing so because they do put some of the information on their websites and are being classified as media requesters.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm-hmm.
MAX GALKA: Changing the way that the government classifies who counts as a media requester and who doesn't would be the permanent solution to that problem.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, not everything is these financial information clearinghouses. Some are discrete requests from individual companies, brands –
MAX GALKA: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: - who have other motives. Can you give me some examples?
MAX GALKA: Oh boy, there are so many different ways that businesses are using FOIA. You mentioned consumer brands. What a lot of them will do, for example, Coca-Cola or 7-Up, they will ask for information from the Department of Defense about past contracts, that who won the last contract to supply the military with product X, and that will help them craft –
BOB GARFIELD: More favorable terms in their own dealings with the –
MAX GALKA: Yeah, that's right.
BOB GARFIELD: Heh. Hedge funds funnel a lot of requests.
MAX GALKA: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: I'll bite, why hedge funds?
MAX GALKA: So, just in very simple terms, information is what hedge funds specialize in, right? They use information to make smart trading decisions. If a hedge fund is considering investing in a pharmaceutical company, maybe that pharmaceutical company has a new drug in which –
BOB GARFIELD: With clinical trials.
MAX GALKA: Yeah, so the hedge fund might submit a request to the FDA for any adverse reactions that have occurred with this drug.
BOB GARFIELD: So if some new arthritis drug is making people just drop dead or grow third arms, the hedge fund will say, yeah, maybe we're not going to make a bet on that company.
MAX GALKA: Yes, or maybe they already have invested in it and they say, okay, now is the time to exit this investment. This is just one of the many ways the hedge funds are using FOIA. It almost feels like insider trading. It’s not because any information you request through FOIA is, by definition, public. But this is a big one and is growing very fast and it is extremely profitable, from the studies that have looked into this.
BOB GARFIELD: But it’s not just businesses. Political committees use FOIA -
MAX GALKA: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: - requests to get the dope on who, how and why?
MAX GALKA: Yeah, they are actually really, really big users of FOIA. The three biggest are the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Congressional Campaign Committee. Combine all their requests together, it amounts to about 5,000 per year, more requests than any media organization out there. Most of them take the form of what looks like, I request all correspondence between your agency and, say, Marco Rubio.
BOB GARFIELD: Opposition research.
MAX GALKA: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: So, for example, you might go to every agency to see if, in his official capacity, Senator Rubio had improperly used his senatorial leverage for political purposes. This is all hypothetical.
MAX GALKA: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: The idea is to find something that could be useful in helping a Democrat run against Marco Rubio.
MAX GALKA: Yes. You see the same thing in the senatorial and congressional elections, as well, and also at the local level, too.
MAX GALKA: Foreign governments can use FOIA?
MAX GALKA: Yeah. Very often, they are to the Department of Defense, asking about different kinds of military technologies.
BOB GARFIELD: China can do a FOIA to the Department of Defense about, I don’t know, silent submarine propulsion systems? I made that up, by the way.
MAX GALKA: Yeah, they can request whatever they want. It doesn’t mean that the department is going to fill it.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so the private sector is using or overusing or abusing or exploiting a perfectly legal method for obtaining information from the government. Is there any reason why we should be queasy about that?
MAX GALKA: Yes, most of these government agencies are overloaded with requests, as it is, and journalists often have to wait for a very long time before getting the information they request. It certainly has mutated from when it was enacted when it was really a tool purely for journalists. Clearly, today it's not, but I don't think that's a bad thing. Here are two groups that have a vested interest together in improving FOIA. These commercial organizations have one very important thing that a lot of media organizations lack and that is deep pockets. And I think cooperation between hedge funds and journalism outfits is sort of an unlikely match but, actually, really makes a lot of sense.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now during this odyssey of FOIAing for FOIA logs, and so forth, was there a single piece of information that you dislodged that made you say to yourself, well, this is just about the most delicious thing I've ever seen?
MAX GALKA: Every now and then, you run into just a really odd one that seems inexplicable. Twitter was asking for information regarding something about the Manhattan Project.
BOB GARFIELD: This was the development of the atomic bomb, the ultimate top-secret operation of the ‘40s. Any clue as to why?
MAX GALKA: I searched around but I couldn't find anything. It's a total mystery to me.
BOB GARFIELD: Max, thank you so much.
MAX GALKA: Yeah, my pleasure, thank you, Bob.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Max Galka, an expert in data visualization, is the founder of FOIA Mapper.
Coming up, first there was true crime, now there is true innocence. This is On the Media.