The Competition Bureau is investigating whether the Quebec Skilled Association for Real Estate Brokers’ data-sharing restrictions are stifling competition within the housing market.
The watchdog said Monday that it’s looking into whether QPAREB and its subsidiary, Société Centris, have engaged in practices that harm competition or that prevent the event of progressive online brokerage services in Quebec.
The bureau obtained a Federal Court order from associate chief justice Jocelyne Gagné on Feb. 15 requiring the actual estate association at hand over information related to the consequences of its practices and the explanation for its data restrictions.
A court order shows the bureau wants documents related to the confidentiality of knowledge held by Centris.ca, an inventory platform which QPAREB operates through its subsidiary and has called the “most visited real estate website in Quebec.”
The bureau can be in search of information related to decision-making processes tied to QPAREB’s potential dissemination and sharing of real estate data and the consequences this might have on competition within the Quebec real estate market.
Rounding out the bureau’s requests are copies of communications between QPAREB employees and members including complaints, requests, comments concerning the lack of or possibility of real estate data sharing and related disciplinary actions.
The bureau has yet to seek out any wrongdoing to this point, but its investigation into QPAREB’s restrictions is ongoing.
“We’re 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 consider that our practices comply with applicable regulations.”
Société Centris didn’t immediately reply 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 in the marketplace and sold.
These systems are generally not accessible to the general public, so access to 1 is taken into account to be among the many most precious perks real estate boards and associations offer their members.
Nevertheless, the Competition Bureau has been keen in recent times to make sure limited public access to the systems doesn’t contribute to market dominance or ward off innovation inside the sector.
The bureau set its sights on the problem 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 information publicly accessible on brokers’ web sites, 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 listen to the case in 2018.
The Supreme Court refusal cleared the best way for MLS data to seem on other web sites, which have to 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 in search of information from QPAREB.
— with files from Rosa Saba in Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2022.