ICNY 18: What real estate stands to lose from a net neutrality repeal

Redfin and NAR discuss the risks at Inman Connect New York Thursday

NEW YORK — The National Association of Realtors and Seattle-based brokerage Redfin doubled down on their previous attacks of the net neutrality repeal, warning that dismantling the two-year-old Open Internet Order could put real estate companies, homebuyers and individual Realtors at risk.

“For Redfin, if it hadn’t been for net neutrality, we couldn’t have gone from a startup to a public company,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist at Redfin, which launched in 2004 and went public last year. “It was an essential part of bringing our technology from the small scale to the big scale, and now we feel a responsibility to make sure that dominant players don’t dominate the real estate market, that small brokerages get the same footing as big brokerages and that consumers get the best available and most transparent data, and, for us, that means that net neutrality plays a vital role in where consumers start their search: on the internet.”

Speaking at Inman Connect Thursday afternoon alongside Melanie Wyne, a senior technology policy representative with the National Association of Realtors, Richardson said the looming net neutrality repeal, which was has been contested in federal appellate court, would create significant roadblocks for potential homebuyers, whose search often begins on the internet. Under deregulation, brokerage websites like Redfin, or smaller sites operated by individual Realtors, could be subject to higher prices for consumers and slower load times.

“Most consumers start their search on the Internet and we found at Redfin that a third of them will make an offer on a home sight unseen,” said Richardson. “What allows them to do that? Well, the fact that all this information is online, and there are pictures, sometimes 3-D visuals, of what the home looks like. You can be in Indiana and look at homes in Miami.”

Wyne, meanwhile, suggested a reinstatement of net neutrality regulations could either come through a court decision in the appellate court, or in Congress, where a change in administrations often results in a change with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“Once we can get a functional Congress, if we can get that, we’re going to need a legislative solution,” said Wyne.

In December, the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines in favor of repealing net neutrality regulations, a move critics have said poses far-reaching implications for mom-and-pop brokerages and real estate services nationwide.

The vote effectively dismantles the two-year-old Open Internet Order, which had prohibited internet providers from blocking or slowing websites, or charging higher fees for certain sites online and bundling services, much as cable providers charge additional fees for premium channels like HBO and Showtime by bundling certain channels together into a single package.

Without net neutrality, providers can charge more for certain content online, or “bundle” popular websites together with tailored internet plans and create so called “fast lanes” where some sites load faster than other competitors not included in the bundle.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said the rollback will return the internet to a “light touch” regulatory framework that will let internet providers “innovate” by investing in new infrastructure or new consumer offerings.

For internet-centric real estate companies like Redfin, Zillow and realtor.com, the rollback could have a deleterious effect, with internet providers raising prices to access these sites reliably. Additionally, to remain competitive, brokers and real estate services might be forced to pay extra in order to ensure access to all the websites they rely on, should providers choose to offer a tiered-service model.

“We remain concerned that a rollback of net-neutrality rules could lead to blocking, throttling or discriminating against internet traffic, or even ‘paid prioritization’ arrangements that put small mom-and-pop businesses at a disadvantage in the marketplace,” said NAR President Elizabeth Mendenhall in December, doubling down on an earlier letter sent to the FCC as the repeal began to gain traction. “We will continue working with the FCC to share these concerns and ensure a fair and open internet where everyone can succeed.”

On Thursday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo joined a growing list of states fighting back against the repeal by signing into law an executive order prohibiting agencies from entering into contracts with providers who engage in bundling or fast tracking, according to Bloomberg News. As many as 11 states have followed suit in similar fashion to protect the spirit of the law.

“The FCC’s dangerous ruling goes against the core values of our democracy, and New York will do everything in our power to protect net neutrality and the free exchange of ideas,” Cuomo said in a prepared statement. “With this executive order, we reaffirm our commitment to freedom and democracy and help ensure that the internet remains free and open to all.”

Email Jotham Sederstrom

Article image credited to Kevin Hawkins

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