It probably doesn�t mean a thing, or maybe it does. In any case, it demonstrates the fun of poking around the Internet to find little pieces of information that, if they are covered by the media at all, are buried on the back pages of The Wall Street Journal.

This time it was a small piece on the website of the Mortgage Bankers� Association reporting that U.S. Congressman Michael G. Oxley, Chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services had, earlier this month, written a letter to the Government Accounting Office requesting that agency to �review and report on how the provision of real estate services may be affected by or benefit from new forms of information technology (IT) and electronic commerce.�

Rep. Oxley quoted a report by the National Association of Realtors that over 70 percent of consumers now use the Internet in their home search, then went on to state that �electronic commerce should be expected to offer new tools for both consumers and real estate professionals and bring greater transparency to the residential real estate transaction so consumers can make better decisions.

The Congressman said he was seeking a better understanding of how information technology is being used and applied in residential transactions; specifically how (those) transactions are evolving as a result of electronic commerce; what barriers to greater use of electronic commerce exist; how removal of those barriers could benefit both consumers and practitioners and how those changes might affect homeownership.

OK, a member of Congress just using the resources of his high office to educate himself. As Seinfield would say �Not that there is anything wrong with that.� But, in case you do not recognize the name, Michael G. Oxley is the co-author of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, the far reaching legislation that, in the aftermath of Enron, regulates and dominates the accounting and financial reporting practices of all publicly owned corporations in the country.

The Honorable Mr. Oxley is not a person necessarily given to idle curiosity.

For that reason, seven of the nine specific questions he asked the GAO to address may be interesting to real estate professionals, especially those who increasingly rely on electronic commerce to drive their business.
  • What legal or regulatory barriers or self-regulatory practices hinder greater innovation and modernization of residential real estate transactions?

  • Do Multiple Listing Services (MLS) in effect function as the marketplaces for residential real estate?

  • What is the general governance structure, including any governmental oversight or regulation of MLSs?

  • What are the legal and practical effects of the �IDX� and �VOW� rules of the National Association of Realtors (NAR) for the display of MLS information, and what purpose do they serve? Could these rules result in the blocking of legitimate commerce, particularly against certain licensed real estate brokers?

    (Note: IDX, (Internet Data Exchange) is approved by NAR as a website platform which permits brokers to advertise listings from other brokers. Potential buyers can browse these listings freely.

    VOW (Virtual Office Website). Version 1, requires visitors to register before viewing listings, thus providing the sponsoring broker with personal and contact information. Version 2 monitors the visitor�s progress through the site then, at a level pre-set by the website operator � ten houses, 15 condos, etc. � requires the visitor to register in order to access additional information.).

  • What is �� and how does this company generally promote the use of technology by consumers and real estate agents? Is this an IDX or a VOW site subject to NAR rules? (This seems a strange question since is the official website of NAR)

  • What are the state law obligations of real estate agents and brokers to consumers to promote homes for sale, and how, if at all, are these obligations consistent with restrictions on display of information over the Internet?

  • Has the Internet facilitated the custom of agents representing both the buyer and the seller in the same transaction, and, if so, is this good for the consumer.

These questions could lead the conspiracy minded to suspect that Congressman Oxley has a few items on his menu. Is he concerned about existing restrictions on public access to Internet listings? Is he afraid that any limitations on such access may be contrary to the best interests of sellers? Is he worried that NAR is exerting undue influence on the manner in which its broker members can market properties?

Or is he just curious?