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Access to Business Information in Government Files

15 January, 2016 - 09:30

In 1966, Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), opening up to the citizenry many of the files of the government. (The act was amended in 1974 and again in 1976 to overcome a tendency of many agencies to stall or refuse access to their files.) Under the FOIA, any person has a legally enforceable right of access to all government documents, with nine specific exceptions, such as classified military intelligence, medical files, and trade secrets and commercial or financial information if “obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.” Without the trade-secret and financial-information exemptions, business competitors could, merely by requesting it, obtain highly sensitive competitive information sitting in government files.

A federal agency is required under the FOIA to respond to a document request within ten days. But in practice, months or even years may pass before the government actually responds to an FOIA request. Requesters must also pay the cost of locating and copying the records. Moreover, not all documents are available for public inspection. Along with the trade-secret and financial-information exemptions, the FOIA specifically exempts the following:

  • records required by executive order of the president to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or public policy
  • records related solely to the internal personnel rules and practice of an agency
  • records exempted from disclosure by another statute
  • interagency memos or decisions reflecting the deliberative process
  • personnel files and other files that if disclosed, would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy
  • information compiled for law enforcement purposes
  • geological information concerning wells

Note that the government may provide such information but is not required to provide such information; it retains discretion to provide information or not.

Regulated companies are often required to submit confidential information to the government. For these companies, submitting such information presents a danger under the FOIA of disclosure to competitors. To protect information from disclosure, the company is well advised to mark each document as privileged and confidential so that government officials reviewing it for a FOIA request will not automatically disclose it. Most agencies notify a company whose data they are about to disclose. But these practices are not legally required under the FOIA.


Government agencies, in order to do their jobs, collect a great deal of information from businesses. This can range from routine paperwork (often burdensome) to inspections, those with warrants and those without. Surprise inspections are allowed for closely regulated industries but are subject to Fourth Amendment requirements in general. Some information collected by agencies can be accessed using the Freedom of Information Act.


  1. Give two examples of a closely regulated industry. Explain why some warrantless searches would be allowed.
  2. Find out why FOIA requests often take months or years to accomplish.