February 4, 2002
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your inquiry in which you asked, in essence, whether the Freedom of Information Law requires that an agency make records available via email. In short, it has been advised that an agency may choose to do so, but that it would not be required to do so.
From my perspective, there is a distinction between an agency's responsibilities relative to the format in which records are made available and the means by which they are transmitted.
As you may be aware, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records, and§86(4) defines the term "record" expansively to include:
"any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."
Based upon the language quoted above, if information is maintained by or for an agency in some physical form, it constitutes a "record" subject to rights of access conferred by the Freedom of Information Law. The definition includes specific reference to computer tapes and discs, and it was held soon after the reenactment of the statute that "[i]nformation is increasingly being stored in computers and access to such data should not be restricted merely because it is not in printed form" [Babigian v. Evans, 427 NYS2d 688, 691 (1980); aff'd 97 AD2d 992 (1983); see also, Szikszay v. Buelow, 436 NYS2d 558 (1981)]. "Form" or "format" in my view involves the medium by which information is stored; whether information is stored on paper or on a computer tape or in a computer disk, it constitutes a "record." In what may be the leading decision relating to an agency's obligations regarding disclosure in an electronic medium, Brownstone Publishers Inc. v. New York City Department of Buildings [166 AD2d 294 (1990)], the question involved an agency's duty to transfer electronic information from one electronic storage medium to another when it had the technical capacity to do so and when the applicant was willing to pay the actual cost of the transfer. As stated by the Appellate Division:
"The files are maintained in a computer format that Brownstone can employ directly into its system, which can be reproduced on computer tapes at minimal cost in a few hours time-a cost Brownstone agreed to assume (see, POL [section] 87 [b] [iii]). The DOB, apparently intending to discourage this and similar requests, agreed to provide the information only in hard copy, i.e., printed out on over a million sheets of paper, at a cost of $10,000 for the paper alone, which would take five or six weeks to complete. Brownstone would then have to reconvert the data into computer-usable form at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Public Officers Law [section] 87(2) provides that, 'Each agency shall...make available for public inspection and copying all records...' Section 86(4) includes in its definition of 'record', computer tapes or discs. The policy underlying the FOIL is 'to insure maximum public access to government records' (Matter of Scott, Sardano & Pomerantz v. Records Access Officer, 65 N.Y.2d 294, 296-297, 491 N.Y.S.2d 289, 480 N.E.2d 1071). Under the circumstances presented herein, it is clear that both the statute and its underlying policy require that the DOB comply with Brownstone's reasonable request to have the information, presently maintained in computer language, transferred onto computer tapes" (id. at 295).
In short, assuming that the conversion of format can be accomplished, that the data sought is available under FOIL, and that the data can be transferred from the format in which it is maintained to a format in which it is requested, an agency would be obliged to do so.
A request to have records e-mailed or faxed does not involve the format in which the records are or may be kept. If a record can be made available on a computer disk, and an applicant pays a fee based on the actual cost of reproduction [see §87(1)(b)(iii)], I believe that an agency would be required to make the record available in that kind of information storage medium. However, your inquiry does not involve a request that records be made available in a particular information storage medium; rather, it relates to the means by which records would be transmitted. In my view, there is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that requires that records be transmitted via fax or e-mail. An agency may choose to make records available via those methods of transmission, but there is no obligation to do so. An agency's responsibility under §§87(2) and 89(3) involves making records available for inspection and copying, and to make copies of records available upon payment of the appropriate fee.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: John Carpenter Michael J. Marcelle