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Are Toronto Realtors fighting to protect the privacy of their clients by not allowing personal information from the Multiple Listing Service to be released on the Internet, or are they really fighting to protect their own outdated business models? That's the legal and public relations battle that has shaped up between the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) and the federal Competition Bureau.

TREB says the Competition Bureau is "taking action that would force TREB to abandon the safeguards in the MLS system and make personal information publicly available on the Internet, threatening the privacy and safety of GTA consumers."

The board launched a new website the same day it released a survey indicating that "the vast majority of Ontarians clearly expressed their opposition to abandoning the privacy safeguards of the current MLS system," TREB says.

According to the Angus Reid Vision Critical poll, 75 per cent of Ontarians believe that personal information such as name and final sale price should be kept confidential by Realtors; 70 per cent of homeowners do not want their personal contact information released to the public; and 67 per cent oppose any measure to make personal contact information such as name and address available to others who are not subject to a professional code of conduct.

"The results of this poll are overwhelming," says TREB president Richard Silver in a news release. "TREB strongly believes that Realtors have an obligation to protect consumers' personal information. That's why TREB and Realtor members are fighting for the privacy rights of consumers."

Last year the Competition Bureau filed a complaint against TREB, stating that the board's rules have a "stifling effect on innovation, all to the detriment of consumers and brokers."

In a filing to the Competition Tribunal, the bureau says, "TREB's practices protect the interests of the majority of its traditional, dues-paying members from the competitive threat of innovative brokers who want to use VOWs (virtual office websites) to enter or expand in the market and offer more attractive services to consumers."

For example, says the bureau, TREB does not allow "all information relating to historical solds, pending solds" and "other highly pertinent residential property information that is readily available from TREB's MLS system" to be released to any Internet sites.

"The information at issue is data such as the selling price of a residential property, the number of days it was for sale on the market and price changes during that time, all of which is currently and freely distributed by traditional brokers to consumers on a regular basis by means other than a VOW," says the bureau. "TREB cannot realistically characterize itself as the protector of consumer's privacy, given that it does nothing to stop its members from sharing all of that information with consumers - provided they do so in a traditional manner that reinforces the 'bricks and mortar' model of doing business that is so profitable to those members at the expense of other brokers and consumers."

TREB says if the Competition Bureau is successful in getting the complaint upheld, "consumers' private information, which is currently protected on our secure MLS system, would become freely available on the Internet, including seller's name and address, property floor plans, sensitive property access information, negotiated sale price and mortgage details."

TREB's new website includes some scary-looking graphics of a man peaking through some window blinds and a burglar eyeing a home that appears to be vulnerable, with its doors and windows hanging open. The board has come under some criticism for dramatising the threat of privacy issues. Von Palmer, chief privacy and government affairs officer for TREB, told the National Post that "one cannot ignore the reality of mortgage fraud, identity theft and a host of other safety issues" that could be a concern if the information is on the Internet.

"TREB is not trying to exaggerate the consequences of a breach of consumers privacy, but merely explaining the issue to consumers who have already spoken by way of the Angus Reid poll that they do not want their personal information openly available on the Internet," says Palmer.

The Competition Tribunal hearing to deal with the bureau's complaint is scheduled to be heard in September 2012.

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