The federal competition watchdog says Canada's largest real-estate board is using privacy concerns as a pretence for preventing brokers from giving consumers direct access to important online data on the Multiple Listing Service.
The Competition Bureau says new rules brought in by the Toronto Real Estate Board last month are designed to ensure customers must rely on an agent from a traditional "bricks and mortar" brokerage to get the information.
The agency says the board's rules limit innovation and competition from Internet brokerages.
The rules, implemented Aug. 25, prevent agents from giving consumers password access to what's known as Virtual Office Websites, even though the information is readily available by hand, mail, fax or email from their agent.
"If TREB is genuinely contesting the Commissioner's position on privacy grounds, then TREB's traditional member brokers must already be in widespread violation of the very privacy rules TREB claims to be concerned about, TREB cannot have it both ways," says a filing on behalf of Competition Commissioner Melanie Aitken.
The comments were a response to TREB's submission — filed with the quasi-judicial Competition Tribunal — that says privacy laws would be jeopardized if it opened up its database to online access.
TREB responded late Friday to the bureau's filing, calling it "misguided and inaccurate," and saying that it is ignoring the privacy concerns of Ontarians.
If the bureau's requests are met, it said, consumers would see their contact information, private information on property ownership, and private details of their contracts made accessible for the public on the Internet.
"The Competition Bureau has completely failed to explain how it is possible to release private consumer information on the Internet without unnecessarily sacrificing consumer privacy rights," said TREB president Richard Silver.
"The Commissioner continues to posture, but consumer privacy rights are too important for this kind of recklessness."
The bureau argues said TREB's amended policy is little more than an attempt to stop the tribunal from scrutinizing the board's activities.
The bureau initially filed a lawsuit against the board in May, alleging that consumers were being denied choice because local agents are banned from giving consumers direct access to information through websites.
The case against Canada's largest real estate board is the second time in two years the competition watchdog has taken on the real estate industry over practices it says are anti-competitive and limit consumer choice.
The Competition Bureau says industry rules have been preventing some of Canada's 100,000 realtors from offering alternative services that give consumers more options. Under the traditional model agents are involved in the entire sales process and sellers pay a standard five per cent fee.