Can I use FOIA to source lists?

Sure! It's legal. Is it wise? Um....let's skip that point for a moment. Let's start with, "it's legal!"

What does "FOIA" mean in this context? Wikipedia to the rescue:
 The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, is a federal freedom of information law that requires the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government upon request. 
Apart from the U.S. federal government's Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. states have their own varying freedom of information laws.
Querying a government agency to get information back is almost always referred to as "obtaining this information via FOIA" even if that's not exactly the correct governing law in some circumstances.

Lots of different kinds of email address data can be obtained via FOIA requests.
  • People with certain licenses (like hairdressers and real estate agents).
  • School officials.
  • Medical boards (maybe?).
  • Even people who have emailed various government agencies (I ran into this all the time when I lived in Florida).
So, that's how you get the data.

Next, how do you send emails to this list via your favorite email platform?

You don't. 

Those people didn't sign up for mail from you and if you send them mail, you're sending spam. ESPs hate spam and if they catch you, they will suspend or terminate your account.

ESPs consider FOIA-compiled email lists to be equal to purchased lists. No smart, successful or savvy email platform allows purchased lists or FOIA lists.

As I said above, I got FOIA-sourced spam once in a while back in Florida. (Thanks, Florida Sunshine Law.) A couple years ago, I signed up for various city email lists in the south Florida city my wife and I were living in. Apparently people would use FOIA-like data requests to get my email address (and other addresses) and then they'd upload those addresses into some service like Constant Contact and MailChimp. Then they'd email me. Then I'd forward the email to the abuse desk of the sending email platform. And then a policy compliance person from that ESP would reply to me, letting me know one of two things:
  • We're suspending this account now, or
  • We've already suspended this account because you're like the 54th person to complain about this.
Uh oh, those spammers lost their ESP access. And rightly so. Don't be like those spamming idiots -- it's a short term strategy (at best) and it inevitably will both run you into problems with a platform's policy compliance team and cause deliverability issues.

Even if I didn't care about best practices or policy enforcement or email ethics, I still wouldn't allow or support use of purchased list data or FOIA data. Why? Because it performs poorly and causes deliverability problems. It just doesn't work.

And if you're asking, hey, is this some sort of new industry restriction? Well, you're missing the point, but the answer is no, this isn't some new restriction. It was always bad news -- here's Mickey Chandler blogging on this very topic almost ten years ago.

(Edit: I'm not blaming MailChimp and Constant Contact here. Both have strong permission policies and are quick to drop the ban hammer on anyone who violates those policies. I thank them for this.)

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