More Letters to NAR: Making Sausage Is Messy But The Results Can Be Tasty

May 5, 2011 Michael Wurzer

I’m sure most of you have heard the old Otto von Bismarck quote about how “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” I guess we can extend that to MLS policy now as well, but in this age of the Interwebs we’re all nonetheless privileged to the most gruesome details.  Turn away now if you’re squeamish.Image courtesy of So Misguided.

wrote a few weeks ago about a controversy erupting over recommendations of an IDX Data Use Work Group to expand the use of IDX feeds beyond participant web sites to “any electronic means” including mobile devices, social media sites, and RSS feeds.

Letters to NAR urging rejection of this recommendation continue to mount, with the most recent coming from the Council of Multiple Listings Services (of which FBS is a proud member) and MLSListings Inc.

Generally, I agree with the conclusion these letters to NAR make, namely that the recommended policy change should be rejected as written.  But if there was an option to change the recommended language while keeping the intent, that would be a much better result. The overall intent of the policy — to allow innovation by brokers and agents — is critical to the industry.  What’s really needed here is not outright rejection but rather a little more sausage making.  Add some salt and a few other seasonings, and perhaps we’ll have ourselves a winner. (In this regard, the letter crafted by MLSListings Inc. does well to make recommendations instead of just arguing for rejection.)

The two recommendations I made in my earlier post were to define and require terms of use for IDX data and to tailor those terms of use to the particular uses and specific data being considered.  These two recommendations could address the concerns expressed by those urging rejection, as well as improve IDX protections overall.  Currently, most IDX policies of which I’m aware only specify that web sites displaying the data include a copyright statement in favor of the MLS.  Though a copyright statement is important, specifying a more particular contractual terms of use (e.g., personal, not commercial, etc.) would be very helpful to compliance enforcement.  Moreover, I’ve also suggested that perhaps those contractual terms of use could be different for different parts of the IDX data, such as a simple ad containing a few data fields versus the entire listing.  Clearly, the need to protect the entire data feed is different than the need to protect the basic advertisement implicit in each IDX listing.

With these recommendations in mind, let’s turn to some of the specific objections being made in the letters to NAR.  First, let’s address the use of RSS or Real Simple Syndication for display of IDX data.  The primary objection to RSS is that it makes it too easy for bad actors to rip IDX data off the web site.  This argument is flawed because bad actors already can easily rip IDX data off existing sites (parsing HTML is not much (if any) more difficult than parsing XML) and the benefit of RSS is that it is, in fact, simple.  Because theft of the data is already easy, the real key to responding to this concern (and shoring up the policy generally) is requiring a more comprehensive terms of use on sites displaying IDX data.  With such a terms of use, MLSs could specify what uses are and are not allowed for the IDX data and include contractual provisions that will be easier to enforce than a copyright-only enforcement claim.

Another argument being made against RSS is that it is not a “display” of IDX data but rather a method of transmission of the data.  Again, this argument misses the main point that RSS is intended to make sharing data easier.  Most of the letters concede that IDX data should be allowed on mobile devices.  Why is this?  Because it’s obvious how important mobile is to the consumer today, and that mobile is a natural and critical extension of a participant’s web presence (pay attention to this term, “web presence”).

screen capture 39For example, we all know how people love their iPads, right?  One of the most popular applications for the iPad (or the iPhone) is a news reader called Pulse.  Guess how Pulse pulls in data?  You got it, RSS (and, recently, APIs).  So, even though everyone agrees that mobile is critical for brokers and agents to engage consumers, one of the key ways consumers can consume content via mobile is being rejected.  Does that seem like the result everyone wants?

Here’s the most important point of this post and this entire debate: Innovation cannot be defined before it happens. This is my guess as to why the work group chose the vague language “any electronic means,” because no one can know what the next innovation will be to transform how real estate is advertised.  The reality is that the Interwebs are blurring all boundaries, which brings me to the objection to including IDX on social networks.

The objections to allowing IDX on social networks are that they are not the participant’s “web site”, they cannot be monitored, and the data goes stale, potentially misleading consumers.  All of these arguments are incorrect.  Social networks are almost all web sites and, for many, Facebook profiles and pages are their primary presence on the web (i.e., web site).  To say that social network profile pages are not web sites fundamentally ignores the shifting nature of the web.

The argument that Facebook profiles are harder to monitor than other web sites also is incorrect.  If I were an MLS participant, I could set up a WordPress site right now that would require users to register to see the IDX information and I could require that I approve every registration prior to use.  This is no different than approving a friend to see your Facebook profile.  I also could create separate sites for every city, zip code and neighborhood in my market, creating a huge number of sites the MLS would need to monitor, and all these sites would comply with the current IDX rules.  So, yes, social networks are yet another site to monitor but they do not change the nature or even the scope of the compliance enforcement problem, because, by definition, the web creates a limitless number of sites.

Another argument against allowing IDX on social networks is that the data will be stale.  Again, this problem is no different on social networks than it is on any other web site, where the data can equally be allowed to go stale.  In fact, two aspects of social networks make it less likely that stale data will mislead someone, especially as compared to other web sites.  First, sites like Twitter or even Facebook where the norm are short status updates are much more amenable to a link to a dynamic web page that can be always up to date than they are to static content. Second, the flow of information through these social networks is so fast that any stale data will, for all practical purposes, be long gone and out of site of anyone and everyone long before it can become stale or misleading to anyone.

To be clear, the objections brokers and others have made regarding data currency, policy enforcement, and liability exist, but they are not greater for social networks, mobile or even RSS than they are for the existing web sites that are allowed. The same problems already exist under the current policy, and the differences posed by mobile, social and RSS are not the source of the problems, the nature of the web itself is the source of the problems, and so they will not go away regardless of what happens with the policy.

(As a side note, if anyone thinks the issue of posting listing information to social networks isn’t already happening and that rejecting this policy change will stop it, check out these Twitter searches for Century21ReMaxflexmlsMarketlinx, or your franchise or MLS vendor URL of choice.)

As I mentioned above, innovation is not known ahead of time.  What we do know is that the Interwebs are changing all of our lives, mostly in exciting and productive ways, even if the unknown is fearful.  Our industry needs to compete in this reality, where your web presence more and more is your presence in the market, where being on the web (or having a web site) means being on mobile devices and social networks and where RSS helps fuel all those channels.  So, instead of rejecting the innovation that will occur with or without us, we must craft the terms of use and contractual conditions on which these innovations can flourish.  Then we might have some tasty sausage.