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File photo of a sign outside a house for sale in Toronto. (Sami Siva/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
File photo of a sign outside a house for sale in Toronto. (Sami Siva/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Competition Bureau holds firm in push against TREB Add to ...

The Competition Bureau is plowing ahead in its effort to force the Toronto Real Estate Board to enable more online competition.

The Federal Court of Appeal is set to hear arguments from each side in the high-profile dispute on Wednesday, court documents say.

The fight has been brewing for years. The Competition Bureau conducted a lengthy investigation into the real estate industry, and then filed a case with the Competition Tribunal in the spring of 2011, accusing the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) of anti-competitive practices.

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The Tribunal dismissed that case last April, and the Competition Bureau decided to take its battle to the federal appeals court.

“The Toronto Real Estate Board prevents its members and others in the Greater Toronto Area from competing effectively through Internet-based real estate brokerages,” the commissioner of competition states in documents filed with the appeal court in advance of Wednesday’s hearing. “TREB’s rules deny the buyers and sellers of residential real estate more choices, better services, and lower prices.”

While the commissioner is going head-to-head with Toronto’s real estate board, the largest in the country, observers say the case is likely to have implications in other cities. The Canadian Real Estate Association acted as an intervenor in the initial case.

At the heart of the dispute is “historical sold data,” or information about the prices that homes have fetched in the past. That data is important for market participants, and should be made more accessible online, the bureau argues.

TREB, a not-for-profit organization that represents more than 35,000 realtors and brokers, owns and controls its Multiple Listing Service. The bureau alleges that the real estate board is using its control of the MLS to limit what its members can do online, and that the restrictions lessen competition.

TREB argues in documents filed with the appeal court that its rules stem from privacy and regulatory restraints. The board has said in the past that it does not think information about how much a house previously sold for should be widely disseminated online. TREB also argues that, as an organization, it does not compete in the real estate market.

But the commissioner suggests that such an argument is dangerous, saying that the Competition Tribunal’s ruling “permits TREB and other trade associations to do with impunity what their members could never do themselves, to engage in conduct that excludes competitors from competing in a market.”

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