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The National Association of Realtors will soon decide whether real estate brokers and agents should have the right to display shared listings data from their multiple listing service by means other than approved websites, such as mobile devices, social media sites and "really simple syndication" (RSS).

A number of MLSs restrict the display of Internet Data Exchange (IDX) listings feeds to broker, agent and MLS websites, and have opposed previous attempts to force them to grant brokers and agents additional rights to distribute listings electronically.

Opponents say it will be difficult or impossible for MLSs to enforce rules governing the display of IDX listings if they can be distributed on platforms that may be inaccessible to them, such as social media websites.

The rules governing the display of IDX listings include requirements to identify and link back to the listing broker, and to protect listings data from unauthorized users. Third-party listings websites that "scrape," or copy listings from IDX websites in order to generate leads that can be sold back to real estate agents, are of particular concern to some brokers.

If MLS rules governing the display of IDX listings cannot be enforced, opponents of a rule change say some brokers may decide they are no longer willing to provide their listings to IDX feeds, which would reduce the appeal of public-facing IDX websites to consumers.

Proponents of a rule change allowing brokers and agents more leeway to distribute IDX listings say NAR shouldn’t hamper its members from competing with third-party services that aren’t subject to the association’s rules.

A work group formed by NAR to study the issue has twice recommended that NAR’s IDX policy be amended to allow the "electronic display" of IDX listings beyond broker, agent and MLS IDX sites — as long as MLS rules governing the display of IDX listings are followed. A Presidential Advisory Group has issued a report making similar recommendations that NAR’s board of directors could take action during a Monday meeting. 

At NAR’s annual meeting in Anaheim, which runs from Nov. 11-14, the association’s board of directors will also consider rescinding a controversial rule change that, during the first half of 2011, allowed franchisors to display IDX listings in any market where one of their affiliated brokers had granted permission.

Franchisors were previously able to display listings represented by their own franchisees, but not listings represented by other brokers.

The rule change was controversial because it would have allowed franchisors with brokerages in many markets to operate websites with comprehensive or nearly comprehensive nationwide listings coverage.  Thanks in large part to its ties to NAR, Realtor.com is currently the only listings portal that receives listings data from nearly all of the more than 900 MLSs in the U.S.

The decision to allow franchisor display of IDX listings was approved at last year’s board meeting, and went into effect in January. After the change went into effect, brokerages including the nation’s second largest, HomeServices of America, called for the decision to be repealed.

Franchisors including Realogy, Keller Williams and RE/MAX argued against a repeal, citing investments they’d made in their websites in order to display IDX listings, and noting the 18-month public process NAR undertook before instituting the rule change.

At NAR’s midyear conference in Washington, D.C., in May, the Association’s board of directors postponed a decision on repealing the rule change allowing franchisors to display IDX listings, but said brokers would have to "opt in" if they wanted their IDX listings to appear on franchisor websites.

Advisory group recommendations

At the conference, NAR President Ron Phipps convened an Internet Data Exchange Presidential Advisory Group — the "IDX PAG" — to study both franchisor IDX display and the distribution of IDX listings beyond approved broker, agent and MLS websites.

In an August report, the IDX PAG recommended that NAR rescind the rule change allowing franchisor display of IDX listings. The report recommended that NAR support listings syndication as an alternative way for franchisors, real estate brokerage networks, and regional real estate firms to display listings.

Syndication, which gives brokers control of where listings they represent will appear, is a commonly employed method of feeding listings information to third-party sites like Zillow.com and Trulia.

The IDX PAG report also recommended that NAR’s IDX policy be amended to permit brokers and agents to use social media to display IDX listings.

The report further recommended that the IDX policy be amended to clarify that as long as brokers and agents are complying with rules governing the display of IDX listings, they may utilize "all delivery mechanisms and devices" for their display, including real-estate specific "apps" (applications), smartphones, and technologies such as RSS (really simple syndication).

To give MLSs the ability to enforce rules governing IDX display, the IDX PAG recommended specific amendments to NAR’s IDX policy, including a requirement that brokers and agents provide MLSs with direct access to any IDX information they display, including listings shared via social media sites and RSS feeds.

Those requirements don’t go far enough for some MLSs, the Council of Multiple Listing Services said in a Nov. 2 letter to Pat Callan, chairman of NAR’s Multiple Listing Issues and Policies Committee.

If MLSs can’t give their members the ability to opt out of having their IDX listings appear on social media sites, "Some MLSs fear a mass exodus of brokers" from the IDX system, CMLS President Merri Jo Cowen said in the letter.

Cowen also said it’s CMLS’s position that RSS should not be an option for displaying IDX listings, because "there is an absolute loss of control when information is retrieved via RSS."

According to MLSListings CEO Jim Harrison, Cowen said, RSS allows subscribers who don’t have data use agreements with MLSs or brokers to "manipulate or repurpose" listings data "with impunity. RSS technology opens the door for savvy users or websites to essentially export any IDX data, (and to) aggregate, store and manipulate that data without any consent from the broker or MLS."

Cowen said that while the rule changes recommended by the IDX PAG would require any display of IDX data to be "controlled by the participant," that definition is open to interpretation.

Michael Wurzer, president and CEO of FBS Data Systems, which provides software used by more than 100 MLSs as well as IDX search capabilities for broker and agent websites, said in a blog post that he agrees with CMLS that "the stakes are high here and messing with a successful program like IDX is dangerous business."

That said, "the industry needs an approach to IDX that responds to technological innovations without so much angst," he said.

Wurzer stated that one solution would be to focus more on license agreements — between MLSs, brokers and agents, and consumers — that don’t allow repurposing of data.

"Looking out for the ‘bad hats’ who steal data is an easier … task than monitoring thousands upon thousands of IDX websites out there," for compliance with IDX display rules, Wurzer said.

There’s no debate that IDX data should be distributable through mobile applications, Wurzer said. But the value of RSS and even social media as distribution channels for IDX listings is less clear to him.

"FBS doesn’t provide RSS updates with our IDX solution," he said, "and I certainly don’t think the world will end if RSS is not allowed for IDX. Frankly, this issue may well be a tempest in a teapot and evidence of how slow the IDX policy discussion is, because many argue that RSS as a consumer technology is dead."

Whether NAR decides to amend the IDX policy to accommodate display of IDX listings on social media sites or not, brokers and agents will still have the right to publicize their own listings on Facebook and other sites.

NAR’s Multiple Listings Issues and Policies Committee will debate the IDX PAG’s recommendations Saturday. The committee will then make its own recommendations, which will be reviewed by NAR’s Executive Committee before they are submitted for approval to NAR’s Board of Directors, which meets Monday.

Consequences for brokers, MLSs

Brian Larson, an attorney and consultant for real estate brokers, Realtor associations, and MLSs, thinks "NAR’s committee leadership is fatigued with this issue," and that the IDX policy will be amended — either as recommended by the IDX PAG, or with modifications introduced in Anaheim.

Assuming the policy passes as proposed, brokers should be prepared for their listings "to appear in a lot more places on the Internet," Larson said Friday on his blog, MLS Tesseract.

Brokers can either "deal with it" — appointing a point person on staff to deal with "calls from unhappy consumers who do not understand how their listings ended up in undesirable places" — or exclude their listings from IDX and give up their ability to display other brokers’ listings on their own websites.

Before the IDX system was created, broker and agent websites typically featured only the listings represented by each brokerage, limiting their usefulness to consumers. Brokerages participating in IDX must display the listings of all participating brokers, and cannot block their listings from appearing on other participating brokers’ websites.

In markets where all or nearly all brokers are providing IDX listings, IDX websites operated by brokers, agents, and MLSs, are the most comprehensive source of publicly available listing data. In markets where brokers with significant market share do not participate in IDX, IDX websites do not provide comprehensive listings coverage.

Larson said some leading brokers in "a couple smaller markets" have never taken part in IDX, but he’s recommending that most brokers stick with IDX.

As for MLSs, Larson thinks they should interpret any new IDX policy "as conservatively as possible," to give themselves as much flexibility as possible.

"This is not because I want brokers’ ability to innovate to be limited," he said, but because "it’s easier to keep the cat in the bag than to get it back in there after it’s out."

NAR, he said, "should defer to the local MLS’s interpretation unless it is manifestly contrary to the language of the policy."

NAR’s Multiple Listings Issues and Policies Committee will meet from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Nov. 12, in the Marquis Ballroom Center of the Anaheim Marriott Hotel in Anaheim. NAR’s Board of Directors will meet from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Monday, Nov. 14, in the Pacific Ballroom of the Hilton Anaheim Hotel.


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