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That high-tech FBI

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Yesterday, I stopped by the FBI website to find out how to file a Freedom Of Information Act request. My father had always figured he probably had an FBI file, and my brother had made a comment in passing that pointed out that we could request that file.

(It's been a big week for family stories—I've been learning a lot about Peter. But more on that another time.)

So I did a search. I found a government page that listed all of the federal departments and bureaus and linked to their FOIA pages—except that the FBI wasn't listed. So I went to the FBI website; down at the bottom, in tiny print, I found and followed a link that said Freedom of Information Act/Privacy.

(Note that the US government's web servers, like pretty much all web servers, track the IP addresses of computers that request web pages from them. If you're paranoid about that kind of thing, you may want to refrain from following the links in this entry—but in that case you may also want to be careful about ever clicking any link to a .gov website.)

On the right-hand side of the resulting FOIA/Privacy page, there's a link that says FOIA Request Instructions. The instructions page turns out to have a sort of 1995 look to it, with a low-resolution banner image at the top, and headings in all-caps and underlined, and so on. But it appears to give the desired information (I'm cleaning up most of the very badly coded HTML here):

ONLINE USERS:

  • If your request is for information concerning an organization, business, investigation, historical event, or incident, you may submit your request online
  • FOIPA Request Form
    By clicking on "send", your request will be submitted to foiparequest@ic.fbi.gov

(Note that their "mailto" link is misspelled as "maileto", so clicking the email address does not in fact produce an email message. Obviously nobody actually tested this.)

But here's the best part: click the link to that FOIPA Request Form. It's remarkable.

At first glance, it looks kind of like a form that could be filled out online—there are clickable radio buttons, for example, to indicate who you are and what you want the info for.

But it also looks kind of like a paper-based form that can't be filled out online. Most of the form consists of form labels (like "Requester's Name") followed by long rows of underscores:

Requester's Name: _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 

(That's an exact copy of the HTML code from the page.)

It looks to me like the page was created by someone who wasn't familiar with the HTML code to create a form that can be filled in online. It's not possible for someone visiting the page to type anything on the page; there are no text boxes to type into.

There are two sets of radio buttons that appear to work, as noted above; those use approximately the correct HTML code for radio buttons.

And down at the bottom of the page are two buttons: one that says PRINT and one that says SEND.

And neither one of those buttons does anything at all when clicked. Because there's no HTML <form> tag telling the browser what to do when the visitor clicks a button.

I kind of think they must have had the form as a Word document (or something similar) and someone at the FBI came up with the idea of putting the form online, to make it easier for the public to file requests. An admirable idea. So they made a valiant attempt to put it online—but whoever was assigned this task didn't actually know much about HTML, and certainly didn't know much about web forms, and so they just converted the form's text into HTML and posted it and assumed that was all they needed to do. It's a form, right? And it's in HTML? So that means it's a web form!

But they didn't bother to try using the form; they just figured it would work.

It's like this: imagine that a bank has heard about this nifty new thing called an automatic teller. Cool! That seems like it would be really convenient for customers. So they take a life-size photo of one of their tellers sitting behind the counter, and then they mount that photo on the outside wall of the bank. And they're pretty sure that an ATM needs buttons, so they pry a couple of keys off of an old broken computer keyboard and they glue them to the photo. And then they put up a sign saying "ATM here, open for business!"

And then they fail to notice that nobody is actually using the thing.

I did drop a note yesterday to the provided email address, asking them to either fix the form or change the instructions. We'll see what happens.

The reason I copied some of their HTML code into this entry is for posterity; I'm optimistically hoping that at some future date, the problem I'm describing will have gone away, so I wanted to preserve some of their code to make clear to future readers that I'm not making this up.

. . . Given how much other material they want when people file a paper form, I kind of suspect that this form isn't something that it makes sense to fill out online. But in that case, they shouldn't say that it is, and they shouldn't provide a SEND button.

. . . Also of note in the form: the line that says "Enter maximum amount you are willing to pay," which at first made me think this was some kind of joke. But no, it looks like they really do want to know how much you're willing to pay. A different section of the instructions page suggests that the payment may be for "duplication fees if any are assessed," but that's not at all clear from the form itself. And even so, you'd think they would say "Here are the fees" rather than "Tell us how much you're willing to pay."

4 Comments

It's the Priceline model for FOIA requests!


For what it's worth, I filled out a FOIA form at few weeks ago at the Village of Oak Park office, so I could see some tax records on a house we were making an offer on. There was a minor fee for photocopying, if I wanted to take the documents away with me (less than $5, I think), but otherwise, free service.


The cynics among us might wonder whether the page is deliberately awful in order to make it more difficult to file FOIA requests. The FBI isn't a small family business who may not have the time or expertise to put together a web site, they're a powerful organization with thirty thousand employees and a seven billion dollar budget. If they really wanted to make it friendly and easy to submit FOIA requests online, surely they could manage it.


Dan: Hee!

Mary Anne: Yeah, I think there probably isn't a fee for small personal FOIA requests, or at least isn't a fee for anything other than duplication and maybe mailing. But I wish that were clearer. (And I get the impression that different government agencies handle FOIA requests differently.)

...On a side note, I should also have noted that I could probably have printed, filled out, and faxed their form in less time than it would've taken me to post this entry. It's not that it's impossible to reach them or anything; I just don't want them to say they have a web form when they don't.

Josh: It's not actually any more difficult to file FOIA requests than it's ever been, for people willing to use paper forms. You print out the form, you fill it out, you send it to their fax number. Or papermail it to their address. If they wanted to make it difficult, they could have done a lot more; for example, they could have not provided the form online at all.

The wacky part is that someone did have to go to some (small amount of) effort to add those PRINT and SEND buttons and the HTML radio buttons. They could have just left it as a printable form, and I would've shrugged and figured that was business as usual for a government office. But to take the half-step of adding a few HTML form controls that don't actually work—I can't come up with an explanation that makes any sense to me, other than that whoever was in charge of that part of their website didn't know what they were doing. "Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence," and all that.


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