Competition Bureau investigating Quebec real estate org’s data sharing restrictions

The Competition Bureau is investigating whether the Quebec Professional Association for Real Estate Brokers’ data-sharing restrictions are stifling competition in the housing market.

The watchdog said Monday that it is looking into whether QPAREB and its subsidiary, Societe Centris, have engaged in practices that harm competition or that prevent the development of innovative online brokerage services in Quebec.

The bureau obtained a Federal Court order from associate chief justice Jocelyne Gagne on Feb. 15 requiring the real estate association to hand over information related to the effects of its practices and the reason for its data restrictions.

A court order shows the bureau wants documents related to the confidentiality of data held by Centris.ca, a listing platform which QPAREB operates through its subsidiary and has called the “most visited real estate website in Quebec.”

The bureau is also seeking information related to decision-making processes tied to QPAREB’s potential dissemination and sharing of real estate data and the effects this could have on competition in the Quebec real estate market.

Rounding out the bureau’s requests are copies of communications between QPAREB employees and members including complaints, requests, comments about the lack of or possibility of real estate data sharing and related disciplinary actions.

The bureau has yet to find any wrongdoing so far, but its investigation into QPAREB’s restrictions is ongoing.

“We are co-operating fully with the Competition Bureau in answering its questions,” said Marc Lacasse, president of QPAREB’s board of directors, in a written statement.

“Respect for the rule of law is paramount and we believe that our practices comply with applicable regulations.”

Societe Centris did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Much of the association’s data sharing activity is linked to a multiple listing service (MLS), where it collects Quebec real estate transaction data and makes it available to its 14,000 broker and agency members.

MLS systems typically contain listings, sales figures, archival info and neighbourhood descriptions entered by brokers as homes are put on the market and sold.

These systems are generally not accessible to the public, so access to one is considered to be among the most valuable perks real estate boards and associations offer their members.

However, the Competition Bureau has been keen in recent years to ensure limited public access to the systems doesn’t contribute to market dominance or ward off innovation within the sector.

The bureau set its sights on the issue in 2011, when it claimed the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board’s grip on MLS data was so tight it constituted anticompetitive behaviour.

The bureau sought to make the data publicly accessible on brokers’ websites, but TREBB fought back, claiming the publication of such data posed privacy and copyright concerns.

The Competition Tribunal and later, the Federal Court of Appeal sided with the bureau, before the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the case in 2018.

The Supreme Court refusal cleared the way for MLS data to appear on other websites, which must be password-protected and are typically open to an agent’s clients or site subscribers.

The bureau used some documents related to its fight with TRREB in its application seeking information from QPAREB.

— with files from Rosa Saba in Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2022.

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