By Neil Sharma
The best defence is a good offense.
Such was the case early during the third day of the Competition Tribunal hearing between The Commissioner of Competition and the Toronto Real Estate Board, as TREB lawyer Donald Affleck revealed that the Competition Bureau’s lead witness, Viewpoint Realty, has been the subject of about two dozen annual complaints concerning privacy.
The privacy complaints pertain to trite matters such as property photographs, countered Viewpoint CEO William McMullin.
“The vast majority of people love what we do (but) we get more complaints because of how popular we are,” he said. “The greatest evidence of acceptance is the popularity of the website. Consumers don’t use things they don’t like.”
When later cross-examined by CREA counsel Sandra Forbes, McMullin said, “Our business is driven by website visitors to match them with agents. Every brokerage has a website that they use, to some degree, for the same reason we do.”
However, Affleck told REM there’s more to the privacy complaints than Viewpoint is letting on. He said he is surprised the Viewpoint virtual office website (VOW) didn’t amend its policies to quell trepidation about confidential information being susceptible to security breaches, and said the privacy commissioner intervened.
“You would have thought that would have caused them to be more careful with the private information they had,” Affleck told REM. “Not just with names and addresses and prices, but because of comments made by Realtors (on the site) to the fact that houses are empty for a month or there’s nobody home until five o’clock. If anybody can access that, it’s rather dangerous information.”
While Affleck says that kind of information is available on MLS listings, it isn’t all displayed openly on public sites.
McMullin downplayed the privacy complaints, emphasizing their banalities. He said many people complain about basic listing details such as photographs – even Google Street View – that other brokerages also employ as standard features.
“The number of complaints is relative to the number of users,” McMullin told REM. “There’s a fairly sizeable chunk of the population that doesn’t understand that the practices of our website and others like it are longstanding. We’re not breaking laws or rules – not even close. We have to operate within the law, and we do.”
McMullin also reiterated what he told the panel yesterday. “People are sometimes uncomfortable with the level of information but they also realize they’ll be on the other side of that transaction at some point.”
Affleck revealed during cross-examination that Viewpoint, which conducts all its business in Nova Scotia, is a member of TREB.
The Competition Bureau’s Emrys Davis called its second witness, co-founder and chief sales officer of TheRedPin.com Realty, Tarik Gidamy, to the stand Wednesday afternoon. TheRedPin, Gidamy says, uses technology to create an enhanced consumer experience. The brokerage has grown from five agents three years ago to 65 today.
“Having different tools like data makes you an authority to customers,” Gidamy told the hearing. “Data doesn’t just attract customers, it nurtures them.”
TheRedPin operates with lower commission fees and says it puts money back into its customers’ pockets, tying neatly into the bureau’s narrative that TREB stifles competition so it can preserve its multi-billion- dollar monopoly.
Realtors also benefit when working with TheRedPin because they spend less time chasing leads and more time interacting with clients, many of whom are repeat customers, Gidamy said.
MLS listing information could help unique brokerages like TheRedPin by providing novel information, such as which floors or views in condominiums sell better and faster, using sold data. It could also help consumers make better investment and end-user decisions, he said.
Gidamy defiantly parried David Vailllancourt’s cross-examination, especially when asked if he felt personally targeted by TREB.
“Well, given the nature of this trial, having the ability to extract (MLS) data would do wonders for me,” said Gidamy. “TREB is there to serve its members, but there are some members that would like to do better.”
He added that major real estate companies such as Re/Max are competitors because they incorporate innovative technologies into their online platforms.
In its three years of existence, TheRedPin has grown to conduct $325-million in business.
TheRedPin and Viewpoint pull data from other sources, but allege TREB discriminates against VOWs by withholding pertinent information that could help increase revenues, because TREB considers them threatening.
“One of our core values is data is everything and it should be offered for free,” said Gidamy. “It’s what you do with that data, how you interpret it, how you extract it, that’s what’s going to set my company apart.”
Redfin, an American VOW brokerage, has seen astronomical growth south of the border. A representative from Redfin is slated to take the stand tomorrow before the hearing breaks. It will resume in Ottawa on Oct. 5.
Keep watching REM for updates.