Everything You Need To Know About the FOIA Exemption 4

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A Guide To Understanding the FOIA Exemption 4

The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 (FOIA) guarantees that the public has the right to ask to see any federal agency’s records. This act ensures transparency and allows citizens to be familiar with their government decisions and actions. While the federal agencies are obligated to disclose requested info, there are some exemptions and exclusions created to protect the following interests:

  • Personal privacy
  • National security
  • Law enforcement

In this article, you’ll find out everything you need to know about the FOIA Exemption 4. We will provide the general info about the FOIA exemptions first and explain what each of them means.

What Are the FOIA Exemptions?

If disclosed records can cause harm to the government, the federal agencies shouldn’t reveal them. That’s why Congress has come up with nine FOIA exemption categories:


Exemption 1

Classified info concerning national security

Exemption 2

Information regarding rules and practices of an agency

Exemption 3

Details that can’t be shared because another federal law prohibits it

Exemption 4

Confidential and privileged trade secrets or commercial and financial particulars

Exemption 5

Privileged information between agencies protected by the:
  • Attorney-Client Privilege
  • Deliberative Process Privilege
  • Attorney-Work Product Privilege

Exemption 6

Records that—if revealed—could invade another person’s privacy

Exemption 7

Law enforcement information

Exemption 8

Details regarding financial institutions

Exemption 9

Wells-related geological info

The FOIA Exemption 4 Explained

Exemption 4 prohibits federal agencies from disclosing two types of info:

  1. Trade secrets
  2. Info that is:
    • Commercial or financial
    • Obtained from any individual or entity
    • Privileged and confidential

What’s Considered a Trade Secret?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit defines a trade secret as “a secret, commercially valuable plan, formula, process, or device that is used for the making, preparing, compounding, or processing of trade commodities and that can be said to be the end product of either innovation or substantial effort.” Good FOIA Exemption 4 examples for a trade secret would be:

  • McDonald’s special recipe for the Big Mac sauce
  • Coca-Cola’s formula for Coca-Cola syrup

There are three crucial elements of trade secrets. The submitted information needs to:

  1. Be used in business or trade (not for non-commercial purposes)
  2. Have commercial value
  3. Have been kept a secret

Do you want to send a FOIA request to obtain certain info under Exemption 4? You can try proving that one of the above-mentioned elements isn’t valid. For example, a requester could find examples of previous public disclosure of the said info. In that case, the agency has the right to reveal the information in question since it hasn’t been kept a secret.

What Happens When Someone Sends a FOIA Request for an Information Under Exemption 4?

Should someone send a FOIA request for information under Exemption 4, the agency needs to inform the submitter as soon as possible. The submitter will have ten business days to object to the disclosure. The objection should include the following info:

  • The reason why the info in question is a trade secret
  • Whether the info was submitted voluntarily or by the request of the government
  • Contact info
  • A guarantee that:
    • The information in question is confidential
    • The submitter hasn’t revealed the info to the public
    • The confidential details aren’t available from other sources

Send Your FOIA Request the Easy Way—With DoNotPay

If you’d like to send a FOIA request for information that’s not under one of the exemptions, you can do it easily, thanks to DoNotPay. Our platform allows you to submit the request in a few clicks, whether you want to request a record about yourself or someone else:

  1. Sign in to
  2. Search for the FOIA feature
  3. Select the type of agency in question—federal or state
  4. Provide the necessary info
  5. Tell us if you want a fee waiver or expedited processing

We will compose a request letter and send it to the agency in question. DoNotPay can send your request to any federal, local, or state agency, including:

How Can I Submit My FOIA Request on My Own?

Sending a FOIA request on your own is challenging because of two main reasons:

  1. Every federal agency has its own FOIA regulations
  2. There isn’t a universal FOIA request form you can fill in

That’s why is the best and most efficient option. If you still choose to submit the request by yourself, you can find a few FOIA request templates online to make the process easier.

These are some basic instructions for submitting your FOIA request:

  • Check if the info you want to request is already available
  • Send your request via mail, email, or fax—most agencies (if not all) accept written FOIA requests only
  • Tell the agency which format you’d like to receive the record in—printed or electronic
  • Make sure to provide all details and describe the information you need

When Will I Receive a Response Regarding My FOIA Request?

The waiting time for the agency’s response is different for everyone. It usually depends on how complex the request is and how much workload the agency has. In most cases, the requesters receive a response within thirty days of sending a request.

You can contact the FOIA Requester Service Center to check the status of your FOIA request. If your status says that the request has been rejected, consider filing an appeal.

Do Federal Agencies Charge a Fee for Filing a FOIA Request?

The first two hours of research and 100 pages of duplication are free. After that, the agencies start charging an hourly rate for their work. The fee is not universal—it depends on the agency in question.

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