As some of my readers know I’ve been engaged by the real estate industry at various points over the last year to share thoughts about how they might be impacted in a world where listings data might be more open.
So I was saddened to read the other day about this misleading campaign the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) has launched against the Competition Bureau. It’s got all the makings of a political attack ad. Ominous warnings, supportive polling and a selective use of facts. You can check it out at the Protectyourprivacy.ca website. (As an aside, those concerned with online issues like myself should be beating ourselves up for letting TREB snag that URL. There are literally dozens of more compelling uses for that domain, from Bill c-30 to advocacy around privacy setting in Facebook or Google.)
The campaign does, however, make a wonderful mini-case study in how some industries react when confronted with disruptive change. They don’t try to innovate out of the problem, they go to the lawyers (and the pollsters and marketers). To be fair, not everyone in the Real Estate industry is behaving this way. Over the past several months I’ve had the real pleasure of meeting many, many real estate agents across the country who have been finding ways to innovate.
Which is why I suspect this campaign is actually quite divisive. Indeed, since the public doesn’t really know or care who does what in the real estate industry, they’re just going lump everyone in together. Consequently, if this campaign backfires (and there is a risk that if anyone pays attention to it, it could) than the entire industry could be tarred, not just those at TREB.
So what is the big scary story? Well according to TREB the Competition Bureau has gone rogue and is going to force Canadians to disclose their every personal detail to the world! Specifically, in the words of the Protectyourprivacy.ca website:
The Competition Bureau is trying to dismantle the safeguards for consumers’ personal and private information.
If they get their way, your sensitive personal home information could be made publicly available to anyone on the internet.
Are your alarm bells going off yet? If you’re like me, the answer is probably yes. But like me it not for any of the reasons TREB wants.
To begin with, Canada has a fairly aggressive Privacy Commissioner who is very willing to speak her mind. I suspect she (and possibly her provincial counterparts) were consulted before Competition Commissioner issued her request. And like most Canadians I likely trust the Privacy Commissioner more than TREB. She’s been fairly quiet.
But of course, why speculate about issues! Let’s go straight to the source. What did the Competition Bureau actually ask for? Well you can find all the relevant documents here (funny how TREB’s campaign website does not link to any of these), but check it out yourself. Here is my breakdown of the issue:
1. This is actually about enabling new services – TREB essentially uses MLS – the online listing service where you look for homes, as a mechanism to prevent new ways of looking for homes online from emerging. I suspect that consumers are not well served by this outcome. That is certainly how the Competition Bureau feels.
2. The Competition Bureau is not asking for information like your name and street address to be posted online for all to see (although I actually think consumers should be given that choice). Indeed you can tell a lawyer was involved in drafting the protectyourprivacy.ca website. There are all these strategically inserted “could’s” as in “your sensitive personal home information could be made publicly available.” Err… that’s a fair degree less alarming.
What the Competition Bureau appears to want is to enable brokers’ client to browse homes on a password-protected site (called a “virtual office website”). Here they could get more details than what is currently available to the public at large on MLS. However, even these password protected site might not include things like the current occupants name. It would however (or at least hopefully) include previous sales prices, as knowing the history of the market is quite helpful. I think most consumers agree that a little more transparency around pricing in the real estate industry would be good for consumers.
3. Of course, anything that happens on such a website would still have to comply with Privacy Laws and would, ultimately, still require the sellers consent.
According to TREB however, implementing these recommendations will lead to mayhem and death. Literally. Here is a quote from their privacy officer:
“There is a real possibility of break-ins and assaults; you only have to read the headlines to imagine what might happen. You hear stories about realtors getting attacked and killed. Can you imagine if we put that information out there about consumers? You can only imagine the headlines.”
Happily the Globe confirmed that the Toronto Police department is not aware of realtors being targeted for attack.
But here is the real punchline. Everything the Competition Commissioner is asking for already exists in places like Nova Scotia or across the entire United States.
Here’s what these lucky jurisdictions have not experienced: a rash of violence resulting from burglars and others browsing homes online (mostly because if they were going to do that… they could JUST USE GOOGLE STREET VIEW.).
And here’s what they have experienced: an explosion in new and innovative ways to browse, buy and sell homes. From Trulia to Zillow to Viewpoint consumers can get a radically better online experience than what is available in Toronto.
I suspect that if consumers actually hear about this campaign many – including most under the age of 40 – are going to see it as an effort by an industry to protect itself from new competition, not as an effort to protect them. If the story does break that way, it will be evidence to many consumers that the gap between them and the Real Estate industry is growing, not shrinking.