Whose Side Are You On?
National Title Associations and County Government square
off over bulk sale of your records
Robert A. Franco
SOURCE OF TITLE
Ten years ago, when most county records were only available in
hard-copy by physically visiting the court house no one complained
that the records were not "publicly available." And, that has not
changed. You can walk into any county office in the country and access
all the public records you want. But, today, that is not good enough.
Just because the records are now available in electronic
format - there is a perception that if the county does not also
provide them in bulk electronic format, often for ridiculously low
fees, the county is hindering access to public records. That is just
Certainly, this is a major issue in the title industry. So, where
does your professional association stand on the bulk sale of pubic
records? Let's compare the stated positions of ALTA and
NALTEA that came out in response to an editorial in a Cleveland
newspaper that criticized the Lake County Ohio recorder's office for
failing to respond to a bulk request in a timely manner.
According to the
|Compact discs have made it easier to assemble documents,
since thousands can be compiled in this easy-to-use format.
But just because it's easy doesn't mean it's being done
quickly. For despite the ease with which public records
requests can be handled, some local governments still fail to
respond in a timely manner.
That can't continue.
Lake County Recorder, Frank Suponcic, was faced with a request for
millions of documents from Property Insight - a company that buys
public records for next to nothing and sells the information to
others. Suponcic is concerned, and rightly so, that the companies who
make these bulk requests can publish the information online and
because some records contain sensitive
personal information, like
Social Security numbers, there is the potential that the information
could be misused.
|"They can be made available to online customers,
which defeats my attempt at protecting Lake County taxpayers'
records from being readily accessed and thus easily available
for any unlawful purpose," Suponcic said.
Suponcic also noted the high cost to taxpayers to provide the
|The county recorder also complains that it costs his
office thousands of dollars to comply with Property Insight's
request, yet the company only pays $1 plus
postage per CD.
Yes, that is ONE DOLLAR. A CD can easily contain 10,000 pages of
recorded documents. In Ohio the statutory rate for "copies" made by
the recorder's office is $2.00 per page. Yet, because the data
is provided in electronic format it can be bought at a discount of
$19,999.00! How insane is that?
Not surprisingly, the newspaper added their own editorial.
|Suponcic wants Ohio lawmakers to do something about bulk
Taxpayers shouldn't bear the cost for a
massive document request, but Ohio legislators should think
twice before tinkering with the intent of open access to
public information. Access and accountability are equally as
important as protecting privacy.
We've seen barriers erected that hinder openness.
It's bad government, and Ohio can do better.
Of course the journalists have a vested interest in access to
public records. I would not dispute their right to access the public
record. However, access has not gotten any worse - just because
technology makes a greater level of access possible, doesn't mean that
its a good idea to allow it. Such is the case with the bulk requests.
In the case of bulk requests of public records, it is not
the information that is sought - it is merely a product that these
companies are reselling. They don't have any legitimate use
for the information that public policy would dictate this degree of
open access. They only seek ridiculously cheap data that is resold to
those who do have a legitimate use for it. Unfortunately, once that
information is gathered it also creates a new market for illegal usage
as well, such as ID theft.
The most interesting thing about this example is the position taken
by title industry groups. For example, ALTA is all for the
bulk dissemination of the public records and
NALTEA is opposed to it.
statement issued by ALTA:
|Will You Always Have Access to Public Records?
The ALTA Real Property Records Committee wants to know
what's happening in your part of the country. The industry
seems to be facing a slowly closing door when it comes to open
access to public records. Recent changes in the laws
of several states have increased the pressure on recorders to
protect social security numbers and personal privacy. That
pressure runs contrary to your need for open and
electronically available records! Check out this OpEd
piece, "Don't Tinker with Access to Records", which appeared
recently in a Cleveland newspaper.
I guess it is no surprise that ALTA would come out in favor of this
appalling "wholesale" of the local government's public
is the puppet of the large underwriters who are the largest purchasers
of county records in bulk form.
Property Insight, the company that made the bulk request
for millions of pages of public records from Lake County, is the
subsidiary of Fidelity Information Services. Fidelity Information
Services is a subsidiary of Fidelity National Financial, one
of the nation's larges title insurance companies with a market share
of nearly 29 percent.
Fidelity is certainly not alone. First American has gone to
court to fight for its rights to buy public records in bulk and sell
them to third parties. When certain counties in Michigan
sought to condition the bulk sale of public records on a restriction
prohibiting the further sale of those records to third parties, First
American took the case to the
United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The court
held that "the registers may not condition bulk discounts,
non-paper reproduction, or reproduction of records generally, on the
purchaser giving up his right to sell the official certified copies
(or unofficial “copies of copies,” or the information therein) to
response to the Lake county situation is posted on the newspaper's Web site:
|Be Careful What You Wish For
County government exists to serve the county
residents, not the business interests of foreign companies.
Allowing uninhibited access to public records, absent of
reasonable restrictions on the purpose of such access, is
simply an irresponsible mandate for any government to impose
upon the custodian of its citizens’ records.
public records have always been available at the
local level. Anybody with a need to access the public
records has always been provided access. Any individual or
company based outside of convenient travel distance to the
site where the records are housed could always employ a local
abstractor, who is familiar with the local recording system,
to obtain the needed records.
The citizens who entrust their documents to government do
so at a cost. They pay for the recording and indexing of their
documents so that a workable system of record keeping may be
maintained. Asking the citizens to foot the bill for
the wholesale distribution of their information worldwide is a
disservice, at best. At worst, it places the citizens’ safety
and financial security in peril.
Not long ago, title plants were owned by local title
companies whose main purpose was to examine those records and
insure local property transfers and loan transactions. Today,
a growing number of companies maintain their title plants
overseas – in India, the Philippines, and other exotic lands.
We hope you have educated yourselves as to the adequacy of
privacy laws in those lands before dismissing concern over the
destination of the Lake County land records.
We also hope you have educated yourselves in the process of
examining land records. If you have done so, you will
note that more information is necessary to fully protect the
sanctity of home ownership than the records housed at the
recorders office. Thus, the quantity and quality of the bulk
information sought by Property Insight is not likely
sufficient to facilitate the purposes cited in your editorial.
Lake County Recorder Frank Suponcic is correct in
challenging Ohio lawmakers. Government openness pertains to
the process by which government works, not selling out its
citizens. Lake County residents should rally in his support.
The Officers and Board of Directors
The National Association of Land Title Examiners and
Aside from the issue of protecting the local citizens from the
potential threat of ID theft, what is in the best interest of us as
title professionals? As a small independent title agent and
abstractor, I much prefer maintaining local access to the public
records. Sure that is biased opinion. But, so is the other side of the
issue. Large title insurers have a vested interest in obtaining the
records in bulk so they can compete with the local agents.
Ultimately, it boils down to which side promotes the best interest
of consumers. Local title agents and abstractors know the community
and quirks involved in the local real estate conveyance system. They
are able to provide a superior level of service to the local citizens.
When transferring property interests in their community, it is better
to keep the system operating on a local level.
The bulk purchase of public records, which are often sent overseas
to be compiled into a "thin-title plant," threatens the small agents'
and abstractors' livelihoods. And for what? The online records are
still not comprehensive enough to provide a thorough title search. The
shallow depth of the online records allow title problems to go
uncorrected. Those title problems create potential hazards for the
homeowners and make a mess of the public records that we all have to
rely on to provide the assurances of clear title that so many depend
So, which side of the issue best represents your interests?
ALTA's push for the bulk sale that benefits the large conglomerates in
their efforts to resell the information? Or,
that the bulk sale of the public records is further deteriorating the
quality of title evidence used in the title industry?
It seems clear to me that ALTA, once again, is representing only
the largest of its members. Just who are they referring to when they
say that laws restricting the bulk sale of county records "runs
contrary to your need for open and
electronically available records?" Most certainly, we need open access
to public records, but we do not need them to be
electronically available. I got along just fine when they were only
available by visiting the courthouse in person, which is the way we
still do business here. We send our title examiners to the
courthouses where they can actually do a through title search.
ALTA surely does not represent me... which is why I have not been a
member for the past couple of years. I surely won't contribute dues to
an organization that supports the large companies that want to put me
out of business. It seems apparent to me that ALTA's interest
is in ensuring the success of the major underwriters' "new business
model" - to buy my county's local records and sell them to my
out-of-town competitors. That is not good for me, it's not good for my
community, and it's not good for the integrity of the public records.
It's only good for those who stand to make a ton of money from selling
off one of my community's greatest assets - our public records.