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toronto real estate board

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Competition Bureau is filing an appeal of a decision it recently lost to the Toronto Real Estate Board, in a case where the bureau accused the board of unfairly restricting data that would help Web-based real estate services compete.

Last month the Competition Tribunal dismissed the bureau's case, which alleged that Canada's largest real estate board was keeping tight control of certain data on house sales, thus hurting the new startups that operate on the Internet. (The Competition Bureau, a federal watchdog, often takes its complaints to the Competition Tribunal, which is a specialized court with decision-making powers.)

The Competition Bureau said Tuesday that the tribunal's April 15 ruling was "based on an overly narrow interpretation" of a section of the Competition Act. The ruling had said that TREB, as a trade association, doesn't compete with its own members so it can't be found to have abused its dominance.

"Allowing the Tribunal's finding to stand could leave a significant loophole in the application of the Competition Act," interim commissioner of competition John Pecman said in a statement. "We are concerned that, if the Tribunal's decision is left to stand, trade associations may be tempted to develop rules aimed at preventing or eliminating potential new forms of competition."

There needs to be a decision on the facts of the case, Mr. Pecman said. "It is our view that TREB's anti-competitive behaviour continues to restrict potential home buyers and sellers from taking advantage of a greater range of service and pricing options when making one of the most significant financial transactions of their lives."

The bureau says TREB is unfairly keeping data about home sales away from online services that compete with real estate agents and potentially eat into their commissions. TREB, for its part, argues that it is upholding privacy laws and protecting the personal information of home buyers and sellers.

The appeal has been filed with the Federal Court of Appeal.

TREB wouldn't comment on the appeal but said in a statement that it "will continue to work to protect the personal information entrusted to it and its members by the general public, while it strives always to do what it can to ensure a highly competitive environment for real estate professionals."

Lawrence Dale, group head of the real estate business at the website Zoocasa, said the Competition Bureau's appeal shows that it is "not willing to let this matter go without further changes being made." He said TREB has made some alterations to its operations, but he hopes that the board's current leadership will now work towards a "reasonable resolution." It is clear that the bureau "will not back down," he said.

This is national test case, Mr. Dale said. "The final disposition of the matter on its merits will finally clear the Canadian landscape once and for all."

Rokham Fard, co-founder of the real estate website, said that if his customers had access to more data, they could perform better analysis and make better decisions. And nobody's privacy is being jeopardized by the release of this data, he insisted.

Mr. Fard said it was frustrating that the tribunal's decision, essentially based on a technicality, came after such a lengthy process. He said he is optimistic the Competition Bureau will succeed in its appeal. "The case is pretty strong," he said. "The logic is there."