Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Select a link below to jump to the relevant page section:

What are the requirements for submitting a FOIA request?

There are two requirements for a proper FOIA request:

  1. It must reasonably describe the records sought and
  2. It must be made in accordance with the agency’s FOIA regulations.

Remember, though, that the FOIA does not require the Federal Trade Commission to answer questions, issue opinions, conduct legal research, or create records in order to respond to a request.

A reasonable description of Commission records would allow a Commission employee to locate records using reasonable efforts. For example, your description should contain enough file-related information (type of document, title, subject area, date of creation, originating office) or enough event-related information (date and circumstances surrounding the event the record covers) to permit an organized, non-random search.

You can review the Federal Trade Commission’s FOIA regulations here

It is to everyone’s advantage if requests are as precise and as narrow as possible. The requester benefits because the request can be processed faster and cheaper. The agency benefits because it can do a better job responding to the request. The agency will also be able to use its resources to respond to more requests.

[Back to Top]

What types of records are publicly available?

Many public materials are available on the agency's web site and can be found by searching here.

Commission Organization Procedures

Staff manuals, statements of the Commission’s procedures and policies, records of votes on public Commission matters, and reprints of the principal laws under which the Commission exercises enforcement or administrative responsibilities.

Industry Guidance

Transcripts of hearings in industry guide proceedings, petitions related to industry guides, industry guides themselves, and digests of advisory opinions and compliance advice.

Rulemaking

Petitions related to rules and regulations, notices and advance notices of rulemaking, rules and orders issued in rulemaking proceedings, and transcripts of all rulemaking proceedings/workshops, and comments and other written submissions in such matters.

Investigations

Petitions to limit or quash compulsory process and FTC responses and closing letters in initial and full-phase investigations.

Adjudicative Proceedings, Stay Applications, Requests to Reopen, and Litigated Orders

Pleadings, transcripts of testimony and oral arguments, exhibits and material received in evidence, initial decisions of administrative law judges, orders and opinions in interlocutory matters, final orders and opinions, including separate statements of Commissioners, records filed by the Commission with the courts in connection with adjudicative, injunctive, enforcement, compliance, and condemnation proceedings, and orders of the courts.

Consent Agreements

Agreements containing orders (after acceptance by the Commission) comments filed concerning proposed consent agreements, and final decisions and orders issued after the comment period, including separate statements of Commissioners.

Compliance/Enforcement

Reports of compliance, requests for advice concerning proposed mergers, and applications for approval of proposed divestitures, acquisitions, or similar transactions.

Access to Documents and Meetings

Letters requesting access to Commission records under the FOIA and letters granting or denying the requests announcements of Commission meetings under the Sunshine Act (including records of the votes to close such meetings) summaries or other explanatory materials relating to matters to be considered at open meetings; and minutes of open meetings and nonexempt portions (or summaries) of closed meeting.

Standards of Conduct

Memoranda to staff elaborating or clarifying standards described in administrative staff manuals.

Other

Press releases, applications for clearance or authorization to appear or participate in a proceeding or investigation and agency responses, continuing guaranties filed under the Wool, Fur, and Textile Acts, published reports by the staff or by the Commission on economic surveys and investigations of general interest, filings by the Commission or by the staff in connection with proceedings before other Federal agencies or state or local government bodies, registration statements and annual reports filed with the Commission by export trade associations, identities of holders of registered identification numbers issued by the Commission, and Commission’s annual report and any other annual reports made to Congress on activities of the Commission.

All of the materials listed below are available for public inspection and copying between 9 A.M. and 5 P.M. on each business day at the FTC headquarters offices in Washington, D.C. Some public records are also available at the FTC regional offices in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle or can be requested from the Consumer Response Center (CRC) Room 130.

[Back to Top]

What types of records can I request under FOIA?

The most frequently requested categories of FTC records are consumer complaints, material relating to investigations, and administrative records.

Consumer Complaints

Requesters frequently ask for records of complaints about the business practices of a company in order to help them decide whether to do business with that company. The FTC maintains several computer databases containing consumer complaints submitted to the FTC and other law enforcement and consumer protection agencies. We also keep files of original copies of written consumer correspondence submitted within the past year (letters that are part of investigative files may be maintained for a longer period). Thus, we may not have all original complaint letters against a company. However, we can often provide information from all consumer complaints entered into the computer databases. If the number of responsive complains is voluminous, we well contact requesters to discuss ways of modifying their requests to get “bottom-line” information, like summaries or statistics, which often fully address the requesters’ needs and exact little to no processing cost.

Investigatory Records

The primary function of the FTC is to enforce a number of antitrust and consumer protection laws. Many people seek records relating to the investigations of various businesses to which these laws apply. Records that fall into this category include commercial or financial information submitted by businesses, inter and intra-agency memoranda and letters, attorney opinions and notes, and decisions or orders regarding investigations and adjudicative proceedings.

Administrative Records

The FTC maintains various administrative records, such as contract proposals, budgets, and personnel records. Requests for these records should be made through the FOIA office. However, some administrative records are public documents. These records include administrative manuals, statements of the Commission’s general procedures and policies, and rules of practice.

[Back to Top]

What information is exempt under FOIA?

While the focus of the FOIA is on making government information available to the public, the statute recognizes that disclosure of certain kinds of information would be harmful. For this reason, the FOIA exempts nine categories of information from the general mandatory disclosure rule, and excludes certain records from coverage under the FOIA.

Information About Internal Personnel Rules and Practices

All agency records must be made available to the public under the FOIA, except for records that are:

  1. Properly classified as secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy (b)(1).
  2. Related solely to internal personnel rules and practices (b)(2).
  3. Specifically exempted by other statutes (b)(3).
  4. Concerning trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person that is privileged or confidential (b)(4).
  5. Privileged interagency or intra-agency memoranda or letters, except under certain circumstances (b)(5).
  6. Personnel and medical files and similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy (b)(6).
  7. Investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes (b)(7).
  8. Contained in or related to certain examination, operating, or condition reports concerning financial institutions (b)(8).
  9. Geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells

FTC records that most frequently fall into one of these categories include material we have obtained from businesses, certain internal communications that are protected by a privilege, personal information, law enforcement records, and internal personnel rules and practices.

Trade Secrets and Other Confidential Business Information

In the course of its law enforcement activities, the FTC obtains a great deal of sensitive or confidential information from businesses. Disclosure of this information often could cause competitive harm to the businesses that provided it. Moreover, businesses are more willing to cooperate with FTC investigations if they know that the government will protect their sensitive information. Accordingly, the law recognizes the importance of protecting much of this information from disclosure.

FOIA Exemptions 3 and 4, together with other statutory provisions, provide for the withholding of trade secrets and other confidential commercial or financial information. Exemption 3 provides that if a law other than the FOIA places any restrictions on the release of information, that information need not be disclosed under the FOIA. The following statutory provisions restrict the release of certain information provided to the FTC by businesses under investigation:

Section 6(f) of the Federal Trade Commission Act ("FTC Act"), 15 U.S.C. § 46(f), requires the agency to protect the confidentiality of trade secrets and other commercial or financial information obtained from a business. FOIA Exemption 4 also explicitly exempts this type of information from disclosure.

The Hart-Scott-Rodino ("HSR") amendments to the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 18a(h), requires submission of information to the FTC about certain mergers and acquisitions, but generally forbids the FTC from disclosing any of this information. The purpose of this law is to avoid premature disclosure of information about those mergers and acquisitions that could improperly affect the sale of a company or its assets or the price of its stock.

Sections 21(b) and 21(f) of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 57b-2, protect certain information obtained in FTC investigations. The FTC has the authority to require businesses or individuals to submit information needed for investigations. This authority is known as compulsory process. Sections 21(b) and 21(f) prohibit release of information obtained through compulsory process, or submitted to the FTC voluntarily by a party when compulsory process might otherwise have been used.

The FOIA exemptions, the FTC Act, and the HSR provisions work together so that most information submitted to the FTC during our law enforcement investigations is exempt from disclosure and therefore will not be produced in response to a FOIA request.

Example: In response to an FTC investigation of the nutrition claims of a health food snack, a distributor supplies the FTC with information about the snack’s ingredients, advertising budget, and sales profits. Both the FOIA and the FTC Act require the FTC to withhold all such information because it is confidential business information and. Disclosing such information to the public would harm the distributor’s competitive position and make it and others in the industry less likely to cooperate with the government for fear of losing competitive advantage.

Internal Government Documents

FOIA Exemption 5 allows the FTC to withhold certain types of internal government communications, including memoranda or letters transmitted within the FTC or between the FTC and other government agencies. The exemption covers those types of records that would normally not be available to a private party involved in a court proceeding with the FTC. The most typical basis for invoking this exemption is the applicability of one or more of the following legal privileges:

Deliberative process: This privilege allows the FTC to withhold information that is predecisional (i.e., prepared in advance of an agency decision in a particular matter) and deliberative (i.e., prepared to aid in the decision-making process). The FOIA allows the withholding of records of this type to facilitate open and candid discussion of issues among government employees as part of agency decision-making.

Work-product: The work-product privilege is designed to protect material prepared in connection with actual or anticipated litigation.

Attorney-client communications: The attorney-client privilege protects confidential communications between an attorney and a client over a legal matter for which the client has sought legal advice. This privilege is not used as frequently as the other two, but is most often available when the Commission’s General Counsel has been asked to interpret a situation and give an opinion or interpretation.

Example: In a law enforcement investigation that is likely to go to trial, the FTC's Office of the General Counsel staff may prepare memoranda analyzing whether the FTC has jurisdiction and outlining the arguments the FTC’s attorneys could use to defend its jurisdiction in court. The FTC may use all three of these privileges to withhold those memoranda.

Personal Information

Exemption 6 allows agencies to withhold personnel or medical records to prevent an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. In addition, Exemption 7(C) allows agencies to withhold personal information that is part of an investigative file. Before invoking either of these exemptions, the FTC must determine that the individual’s right to privacy is greater than the public’s right to know the information in question.

Example: The FTC often uses exemptions to withhold the personally identifying information of people who have complained to the Commission. The person's right to privacy ordinarily outweighs the public's interest in knowing this personal information.

Law Enforcement

FOIA Exemption 7 allows the FTC to withhold law enforcement records where release may harm those law enforcement efforts in one or more ways listed in the statute. Because the FTC is a law enforcement agency, this exemption often applies to FTC records. Exemption 7(A) allows the FTC to withhold information in law enforcement investigations if disclosure would interfere with enforcement efforts (e.g., by alerting a target prematurely of the existence of an investigation, or by revealing investigative strategies). As noted above, Exemption (C) allows the FTC to withhold personal information from an investigative file. Exemption 7(D) allows the FTC to withhold records that could reveal the identity of a confidential source.

Example: Exemption 7 would probably apply in a number of ways to an FTC investigation of a franchiser based on allegations from several franchise owners about allegedly misstated potential earnings. We may use Exemption 7(A) to withhold all information that may reveal to the franchiser that it is an investigation target. We may also use Exemption 7(C) to withhold access to information about the franchisees’ personal finances, because the public has little interest in, or right to know about, information that is not related to government operations or business. Finally, we might invoke Exemption 7(D) to protect the complaining franchisees’ identities if it appears that the franchiser could retaliate against the franchisees.

Limits on FOIA

There are limitations on FOIA requests. Requesters must ask for records rather than information. An agency is neither required to collect information it does not have or is not organized in the configuration requested, nor must an agency do research or analyze data for a requester. The other limitation is that the law requires that each request must reasonably describe the records being sought. The request must be specific enough to permit a professional employee of the agency who is familiar with the subject matter to locate the record in a reasonable period of time.

[Back to Top]

Where do I send my requests?

Send Requests via email to: FOIA @ ftc.gov*

Send requests via fax to: (202) 326-2477*

Send requests via mail to:

Freedom of Information Act Request
Office of General Counsel
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Ave, N.W.
Washington, DC 20580

*If you use the on-line form, facsimilie, or e-mail to submit a FOIA request, you do not need to mail a follow-up letter.

[Back to Top]

Who handles requests for fee waivers?

The FTC's FOIA office has sole authority to grant or deny a fee waiver.

[Back to Top]

Do you notify the customer if the cost is greater than $25?

Yes, unless the customer indicated in his or her request the amount he or she was willing to pay.

[Back to Top]

What is the minimum the FTC will charge?

The FTC will not charge fees below $14. Learn more about FOIA fee regulations here.

[Back to Top]

Do you request the money in advance?

If the charges exceed $250, the FTC may request payment in advance.

[Back to Top]

If a customer has a history of non-payment, will you continue to process requests for that customer?

No, if there is a history of non-payment of assessed fees, the FTC will not continue to provide informationto the customer until payment is made.

[Back to Top]

Who collects the money for FOIA?

All checks should be made payable to the US Treasury and directed to:

Financial Management Office
Mail Stop: 776
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20580

[Back to Top]

Who has the authority at the FTC to withhold documents?

The FOIA Officers have the authority to withhold documents.

[Back to Top]

What can I do if my FOIA request is denied?

A requestor has the right to appeal any partial or total denial of access to documents. Additionally, a requestor may request that the FTC exercise its discretion to release information that is exempt from mandatory disclosure. Appeals must be in writing and include a copy of the initial request letter as well as the initial response letter. A request for discretionary release of exempt information should state the interest of the requester in the material being sought and the purpose for which it would be used if the request were granted.

Sample Appeal Letter

FOIA appeals are decided by the General Counsel. To ensure an independent review of the issues presented on appeal, individuals other than those who processed and decided the initial request advise the General Counsel on appeals. The General Counsel has authority to release documents that are exempt from disclosure, but are unlikely to cause harm to the agency’s activities, individuals, or businesses, if released.

Appeal letters should be addressed to:

Freedom of Information Act Appeal
Office of the General Counsel
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20580

A requestor who is not satisfied with the General Counsel’s decision may obtain review of that decision in a Federal District Court. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). Decisions of the District Court may be appealed to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals and further review may be sought before the U.S. Supreme Court.

[Back to Top]

What if I have a complaint about a company?

The Consumer Response Center (CRC) is the organization within the FTC that accepts and responds to consumer complaints.

[Back to Top]

When can I get a response to my FOIA request?

We answer most requests within the statutory time limit of 20 working days following the receipt of a request. We may contact you during the processing to ask questions or to give you a status report on the processing. You may check the status of your request by calling (202) 326-2430.

[Back to Top]

Can I request expedited treatment for my FOIA request?

We process requests in the order in which they are received. However, you may request expedited handling of your request if you believe there is a compelling need for a more rapid response. To qualify for expedited processing, you must show that: (1) failure to obtain the records quickly could pose an imminent threat to the life or safety of any person; or (2) your primary job is to disseminate information and there is an urgency to inform the public about actual or alleged Federal government activity. A FOIA officer will respond to your request for expedited treatment within ten days of receiving it to let you know whether the request has been granted.

[Back to Top]