When Is Googling Required under FOIA?

Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit holds that a federal agency may be obligated to "Google" someone before invoking their privacy interests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Specifically, if an agency relies upon the privacy interests of a private individual to deny a FOIA request, it must make a "reasonable effort to ascertain" whether the individual is still alive, and such effort may require the use of freely available internet search engines, such as Google.

In this specific case, Davis v. Department of Justice, an author sought the release of audiotapes between a specific individual and an FBI informant from a Louisiana corruption investigation over twenty-five years ago. The FBI denied the request, citing the privacy interests of the taped individuals, but was unable to determine whether the taped individuals were still alive (or over 100, in which case they would be presumed dead under FBI practice). Yet because the FBI did not turn to Google or other internet search engines to aid its inquiry, the D.C. Circuit concluded that the FBI did not make a "reasonable effort to ascertain" whether the taped individuals were still alive.

one has to ask why -- in the age of the Internet -- the FBI restricts itself to a dead-tree source with a considerable time lag between death and publication, with limited utility for the FBI's purpose, and with entries restricted to a small fraction of even the "prominent and noteworthy"? Why, in short, doesn't the FBI just Google the two names? Surely, in the Internet age, a "reasonable alternative" for finding out whether a prominent person is dead is to use Google (or any other search engine) to find a report of that person's death.