I have received your letter of March 8, which reached this office of March 15.
According to your letter, the New York State Office of Real Property Services has changed
its policy concerning the data made available via "SalesWeb", which you described as "the internet
application that serves as a data resource for real estate professionals." You wrote that the
information available on SalesWeb is public, for it includes the contents of "documents officially
recorded in county register, i.e., deeds" and has been "exclusively available to those professionals,
who serve the public in various capacities..."
Nevertheless, you indicated that a notice recently posted on the SalesWeb internet site stated
"In response to concerns regarding privacy, effective March 12, 2001,
buyer and seller names will no longer be available. Accordingly,
the download file option will be unavailable between March 12 and
March 19 while we update the download lines"(emphasis yours).
You contend that :
"The expressed ‘concerns regarding privacy' are difficult to accept in
light of the public nature of the information. That is, it is published
and available to the general public at county offices. Thus,
eliminating critical information from SalesWeb does not protect
privacy in any way, it only makes it more difficult to obtain the
information, and introduces a time delay. As such, it serves no
legitimate purpose and does a disservice to the public at large who
benefit from the use of the data" (emphasis yours).
You have asked that I "look into, and help reverse, what appears to be an arbitrary change
in policy, with no real basis of need, and which is counter to the needs of the real estate market and
its participants, including homeowners."
In this regard, the Freedom of Information Law does not in any way address whether the
extent to which agencies must include information on their websites. I note that the issue that you
raised is the subject of national debate, and that a variety of approaches have been taken. On one
hand, the kind of data to which you referred has historically been accessible to the public and
remains available from the traditional custodians of records containing the data, i.e., assessors and
court clerks. In some states, records and data that have long been available and have been made
readily accessible via the internet. On the other hand, however, many members of the public have
expressed concern with respect to the extent to which personally identifiable information, even
though it may be available from other public sources, should be made available, to anyone,
worldwide, via the internet.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, having contacted the Office of Real Property Services to
learn more of the matter, I was informed that it reversed its stance and that the items at issue will
remain available on SalesWeb.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Steve Harrison, Office of Counsel
Office of Real Property Services