Nothing quite tells the public to mind its own business like attaching a ridiculous fee demand to an FOIA response. It’s pretty easy to price the public out of the transparency market, seeing as it doesn’t have access to the monetary resources its tax dollars are paying for.

We’ve covered a few of the more ridiculous FOIA fee demands here at Techdirt, like:

The City of Ferguson charging $135/hour for FOIA response work — a rate roughly 10 times the hourly wage of entry-level city clerk’s office employees.

The City of McKinney telling Gawker emails related to a police misconduct investigation would run 9,000 hours and cost $79,000.

The Florida State’s Attorney’s Office demanding $180,000 to turn over records on a questionable suicide.

The FBI telling MuckRock that it would cost $270,000 to respond to an FOIA request about Booz Allen — and that’s with an electronic file “discount” of over $6,000 applied.

MuckRock has now topped that last number… exponentially. Martin Peck’s FOIA request for information on the Dept. of Defense’s use of “HotPlug” systems (a portable power pack that keeps seized devices from powering down) has resulted in an FOIA fee estimate exceeding a half-billion dollars.

Mr. Robert R. Jarrett, Director of Operations, Defense Procurement Acquisition Policy, and a FOIA Initial Denial Authority, stated that it is possible that contracts that acquired the requested items are present in the Electronic Documents Access (EDA) system; however, there are more than 30 million contracts in EDA, consisting of more than 45 million documents. No method exists for a complete text search of EDA, as some documents are scans of paper copies. The estimated time required to perform the necessary redactions of proprietary data, assuming 20 minutes per document, is estimated to be 15 million labor hours at an estimated cost of $660 million.

While this amount may be couch change for the DoD (0.1% of its $573 billion budget), it’s ridiculously out of reach for any US citizen without billions of dollars to their name. Then there’s the question of feasibility. Even if every man, woman and child in America tossed MuckRock a couple of bucks to push this request forward, the estimate of 15 million labor hours suggests the DoD will never fulfill it. If the DoD throws 30 people at the problem 24 hours a day without a day off, Peck still shouldn’t expect a response until 2073 at the earliest.

This astronomical estimate says two things about the DoD, though. One, it apparently uses these forensic devices frequently enough that searching for responsive documents will be a massive undertaking. Two, it says the Electronic Document Access system is not nearly as useful as its name would suggest, what with document scans not being searchable. This is a government-wide problem and one that no one’s too interested in fixing.

Many FOIA responses contain documents scanned at skewed angles using the worst hard copy available. It happens often enough that it almost appears the government is seeking to maintain a level of obfuscation while still paying lip service to transparency. Sure, a released document is better than no response at all, but the insistence on releasing documents capable of defeating OCR software prevents collation of similar documents and thwarts search efforts for relevant info — both on the government’s end and the public’s.

This decision will be appealed and the request narrowed significantly, but I imagine the DoD’s database will continue to thwart both its FOIA response team and requesters like Peck, for years to come.

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