The real estate tech giant brought the issue to the forefront of its MLS Forum in Dana Point, California, last week with a panel that brought together experts in data accessibility and federal regulation. The three-day conference featured Zillow executives and covered multiple listing service-specific issues and real estate tech products.
Zillow Vice President of Government Relations and Public Relations Racquel Russell spoke in a panel titled “Competition Policy and the Real Estate Industry” with Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and David Kully, an attorney who worked on antitrust issues in real estate at the Department of Justice, about what professionals in the real estate industry should expect at the June 5 DOJ-FTC workshop in Washington, D.C.
“It’ll be an open-ended exploration of how the real estate industry could be more competitive than it is today,” Kully, who oversaw the 2005 antitrust case against the National Association of Realtors, told the audience.
The 2005 case against NAR focused on NAR’s reluctance to let brokers use listing data for their own websites — now a common practice. At this upcoming workshop, the DOJ and FTC have said, they plan to look into potential changes to multiple listing services, availability of listing data and state licensing regimes around residential real estate transactions.
Both agencies understand the importance of MLSs, the panelists said, but are skeptical about the necessity and anti-competitive effects of keeping real estate data solely behind a walled-off platform.
“MLSs are very special, very important. That’s actually what’s behind a lot of the antitrust enforcement in this area, is the recognition that MLSs are so important that brokers can’t really meaningfully compete in any local area without being a member of the MLS that serves that area,” Kully said.
NAR commissioned a white paper published last month that argued that there are competitive benefits to limiting access to MLS data. Castro, the other panelist, had earlier published a white paper in opposition to some of those claims. Castro advocates for broader access to data.
“I am not anti-MLS. I am pro-data,” Castro said during the panel. “You can be pro-something without being anti-something else.”
NAR, Castro said, has analyzed data as a “normal good” — something that has limited availability and leaves less for other parties when someone’s already using it. But just because one person is using data doesn’t mean someone else can’t use it at the same time. That eliminates some of the benefits of keeping data walled off, like in an MLS, Castro said.
These white papers were a main topic of conversation. But looking forward, the panelists expect the June workshop evaluating competition in the real estate industry to closely examine MLS practices, data availability, agreements among brokers and any state laws that restrict competition.
Federal antitrust officials understand the value of MLSs to the real estate industry — but they don’t agree with some arguments that MLSs need to claim sole ownership of real estate data to stay viable.
“The DOJ and FTC will say they agree wholeheartedly with the idea that MLSs are special, and they deserve to be preserved,” Kully said. “If the MLSs block access to data, the DOJ — they’re going to be skeptical that’s necessary to preserve the MLS.”