A Foundation for IDX Policy Is Critical

Nov 5, 2011 Michael Wurzer

I wrote a few days ago about IDX policy once again being a hot topic at the upcoming NAR meetings in Anaheim next week. Furthering the discussion, CMLS President Merri Jo Cowen sent a letter (PDF) to the NAR’s MLS Issues and Policies Committee urging, among other things:

  • Treating social media sites separately from other participant web sites (leaving the existing IDX policy alone); and
  • Prohibiting use of IDX data in RSS feeds.

Basically, with respect to these two issues, CMLS’s position appears to be that the IDX policy is working, so please leave well enough alone. Perhaps following a rumor that the Realty Alliance brokers are planning to form their own MLS, CMLS also warns that, with regard to allowing IDX on social media sites, “Some MLSs fear a mass exodus by brokers if they are offered only the all inclusive IDX- Yes or No choice.”

I completely agree with CMLS’s primary point that the stakes are high here and messing with a successful program like IDX is dangerous business. As Jay Thompson said last summer at Inman SF, without IDX he is likely out of business as a broker and I suspect many other brokers feel the same way. Yet, several of these thorny issues continue to dog the IDX policy, because the world just keeps on changing and that leaves questions about what the current policy means.

In this case, everyone is wondering whether “participant’s web site” in the IDX policy includes the broker’s branding page on Facebook, Twitter or other social media web sites and whether the accepted practice of providing updates via email can be extended to RSS under the current policy. Unfortunately, the current policy just isn’t clear on these issues, likely because these technologies hadn’t yet been applied to IDX when the current policy language was drafted.

One of the primary points I want to make with this post is that I don’t see RSS or even the social media issue as a big deal. FBS doesn’t provide RSS updates with our IDX solution (largely because of this controversy) 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.

Leaving the irony of this aside, the main point here is that the industry needs IDX (as Jay Thompson so well said) and the industry needs an approach to IDX that responds to technological innovations without so much angst. Importantly, this is not a debate of those “for” innovation and those “against”. Proof of this is that there is no debate about whether IDX data should be allowed for use in mobile applications, even those that most definitely are not “web sites” as defined under the current IDX policy. In other words, everyone understands that mobile applications are critical today, and so no one is debating this issue, even though there many mobile applications allow for sharing on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Oh, goodness, do you see the tangled webs we weave when we don’t have a firm foundation or understanding of what we’re doing with IDX that allows for change?

As I suggested in my previous post on this topic, I believe the solution here is to focus more on the terms of the license agreements being accepted under IDX, all the way from the MLS, through the broker and agent, and to the consumer. Central to those license agreements is the condition that the data only be used by consumers for their personal home buying and selling research, which I understand as the core purpose for IDX. In other words, IDX does not allow others to re-purpose the data for any reason, even if they are just providing it to consumers. There are no middle-men allowed here (like franchises), the last license relationship is direct from the broker and agent to the consumer and the consumer can only use the data for their own personal research.

This is directly relevant to the RSS issue, which CMLS (quoting MLSListings CEO Jim Harrison) and others have argued is risky because:

RSS technology opens the door for savvy users or websites to essentially export any IDX data; aggregate, store, and manipulate that data without any consent from the broker or MLS. In the hands of technology providers unaccountable to IDX data policies, the persons or entities receiving the data have no obligation to present or use the content in a manner defined by the policies. Without this agreement, the MLS cannot assert any governance or corrections. Any abuse or other use will have to be suffered in silence.

I’m confused by this argument, because I know there are web sites that provide RSS updates with license agreements clearly required.

A very prominent example is the New York Times, which has an entire page dedicated to the many RSS feeds they offer. Prominently displayed at the end of that page are the terms and conditions for use of the Times’ RSS feeds:

screen capture 14

This is very similar to what many IDX sites also do. For example, here’s the disclaimer/terms text from an MLSListings IDX site:

The listing information marked with Internet Data Exchange icon (a stylized house inside a circle) comes in part from the Internet Data Exchange program of the MLSListings(TM) MLS.

The broker providing this data believes the data to be correct, but advises interested parties to confirm all information before relying on it for a purchase decision.

The information being provided is for consumers’ personal, non-commercial use and may not be used for any purpose other than to identify prospective properties consumers may be interested in purchasing.

© 2011 MLSListings. All rights reserved.

This is a good statement but I would love to see a link to a more detailed Terms of Use agreement, like the one provided by the Times, which has much clearer language about the terms being binding on the consumer, the right of the Times to discontinue providing the service, non-allowed uses, display requirements, and much more. (The need for this agreement for the broker-agent/consumer relationship is made all the more obvious by the recent acquisition of IDX vendor Diverse Solutions by Zillow.)

I do not provide the above example from the New York Times in defense of allowing IDX updates to consumers via RSS, because, as I mentioned, RSS in itself is a relatively minor issue. Instead, I provide the above example as a demonstration of the proper foundation for licensing data for consumer use on the web today. (Notice, too, how the Times only provides limited info in their RSS feed, which I’ve also argued is a good idea for certain IDX purposes.) This approach provides the MLS, brokers, agents and consumers (all the parties to the IDX relationship) with a clear understanding of what is being licensed (allowed) and what isn’t. As I asked in my last post, if agreements like these are firmly established for every use of IDX data, would broker’s object? Don’t these agreements, regardless of the technological medium, protect everyone and serve the fundamental purpose of IDX?

As Brian Larson has pointed out, “the license agreement is . . . only the first step, but it is an essential one.” Subsequent steps, of course, are enforcement of the terms of the license agreement. With regard to enforcement and compliance, the most important thing is to have a strong program to discover and shut down un-licensed uses of the data.

Looking out for the “bad hats” who steal data is an easier (not easy, but easier) task than monitoring thousands upon thousands of IDX web sites out there. Instead of worrying about those individual sites, spend money on looking for the bad hats and make sure your agents and brokers know that if a bad hat is found to have been ripping off their IDX web site, the broker or agent will be in violation of their license agreement, their feed will be terminated, and will be liable for the violation under the terms of their license. As I said in my last post, this approach “reduces the need for compliance by MLSs, focuses compliance where it should be on brokers and agents deploying the data, and creates a mechanism and incentive for everyone to amp up their compliance game, while also allowing for technological innovation without heartache and endless PAGs every few years.”

The stakes are high here, people. We need to direct this conversation away from these specific technology issues like RSS and social networks that are impossible to predict, can be so easily misunderstood by policy makers, and ultimately are less important than the fundamental purpose of IDX, which is to allow brokers and agents to provide listing information to consumers for their personal use. I fear that the way the current discussion over RSS and social networks has heated up and become confused, we’re just creating more controversy that will result in brokers becoming divided and decide opting out is best. And perhaps they’ll not just opt out of IDX but also opt out of the MLS altogether.

To avoid this, we need to work very hard and together to frame this discussion properly and establish a foundation for IDX policy that is more able to respond to technological and other (e.g., Zillow acquiring Diverse) changes. I hope the above is helpful to that discussion and look forward to hearing your feedback.

P.S. Another thing that confused me about the CMLS letter was the point made about RESO/RETS dictating transport for IDX: “As NAR has provided policy that requires MLS’s to adhere to the latest specification of RETS, the standard as published by RESO should be relied upon to frame data transport mechanisms, not the IDX policy.” RETS outlines one possible transport among many for use by RETS servers and clients. This standard has and should have little or nothing to do with IDX policy. Sure, many IDX vendors get data from MLSs via RETS servers, but the web sites they provide to agents and, in turn, consumers, do not use RETS as a transport, they use the web. Similarly, as I’ve pointed out many times, there seems to be little controversy over the fact that nearly every IDX web site allows updates via email, which is not a RETS-specified transport, either. Further yet, if we limited transport to those provided in the RETS specification, most mobile apps likely would have to be shut down, because RETS does not make for a good transport for mobile development. Anyway, this is kind of an aside, as I suspect it was intended in the CMLS letter, but I’m hopeful the above clarifies the distinction between RETS specifications and IDX policy.