The potential impropriety of comments on various property investor online forums have been picked up by the Commerce Commission recently.
So far the examination of this matter has not resulted in any prosecution but the Commission has issued advisory letters to forum administrators and various
industry groups* to remind investors of the anti-cartel rule per s30 of the Commerce Act.
In short, the Commission reminds investors to be careful around comments that could be construed as collusion to price-fix the rental property market (purchase
price or rent). Comments that call for a group of landlords to raise rental prices at the same time or any that seeks to compromise an individual landlord’s
ability to independently arrive at the rent he would charge or the price he would pay could raise red flags with the Commission. As nothing
on our various online platforms have been tagged by the Commerce Commission as being potentially inappropriate, we will refrain from commenting on
whether, in this instance, the Commission has overreached.
Setting aside the natural urge to speculate as to the underlying or overt political motivation behind Commerce Commission’s communiqué (it is an election
year after all!), we thought it would be helpful to share some tips and insights on how you can engage with each other constructively and positively
- Do not expect privacy – In general, don’t expect your posts to be private even if you publish on private online forums.
The Commerce Commission is empowered to compel private online forums to grant access for its investigations. It has done so in other similar investigations.
- Your right to free speech – The right to free speech, as it is understood by most, is very much an American concept. The NZ Bill of
Rights Act not being entrenched is not considered ‘supreme law’ in New Zealand.
Your right to freedom of expression and any other rights as enshrined by the NZBORA are subject to justified limitations. In fact, freedom of expression
regularly has to accommodate reasonable requirements to make laws relating to broadcasting, perjury, advertising, defamation and same such enforceable.
- Forum moderation – Online forums are subject to the laws of New Zealand, the terms of the infrastructure provider (such as Facebook)
and their own engagement rules. Forum moderators are responsible for setting up and maintaining the forum’s moderation gateway. Make sure you are
well aware of these rules. If you disagree with the moderation outcome of your comment, raise it to the moderators in the first instance.
- Think twice before you post – Even though forum administrators have the duty to moderate comments, ultimately, we are all responsible
for what we post online. So, don’t post anything you don’t want your grandmother to see. Comments that are deleted or edited will always leave
ample digital footprint for anyone slightly savvy with the ways of computers to uncover later on.
- Your online persona taints you IRL – It is not uncommon to vet people using their online profiles. Landlords do this regularly by
looking at the social posts of prospective tenants. Remember that the same thing can be done to you. Posting about how to circumvent a new piece
of legislation (such as the controversial RTA Amendment Act 2020) isn’t proof that you would eventually follow through. However, said post along
with subsequent behaviours in line with the sentiments expressed can lead to the Tenancy Tribunal seeing you in a bad light.
- It is OK to not post – Users turn to property investor forums to get answers and support. Every user has a vested interest in the
quality of information a forum hosts. Implicitly, therefore, there should be an obligation on all of us to post honestly and with the full extent
of our knowledge. Give your words the weight and gravitas they deserve. If you do not know the answer to someone’s question, it is OK to pass.
- Discern the good from the bad – Not everyone posting on a property investor forum is, in fact, a property investor. Make sure you
look into each poster especially if you place a great deal of reliance on their comments.
- Don’t ask for professional advice – Social platforms are great for experience sharing not the giving and receiving of professional
advice. That’s what your lawyer, accountant, and financial adviser are here for.
- Be kind – Heated debates, mud-slinging, strategies to game the law are immensely satisfying during the act but after the
adrenaline rush wears off, you are left none the wiser. Your worth as an investor is based on how you reach your goals, treat your tenants and
helps others, it has nothing to do with the cleverness of your social posts. Use your judgement. If you are not sure whether it is appropriate
to post a certain comment, don’t.
- Give, and you shall receive – Don’t be that person who only asks questions and never contributes to discussions. The more positivity
you feed into an online forum, the more you will get out of it.
Other neat forum etiquette and best practice suggestions can be found here.
Online forums are a great way for investors to lean on each other and get support, especially in these strange times. A bit of thoughtfulness, caution
and self-control goes a long way to enrich your experience connecting with other investors online.
*We see the Commerce Commission’s reminder as more intended for forum administrators rather than forum users. While we do not consider any of our online
forums as coming close to breaching s30 of the Commerce Act, we do want to ensure that these forums remain a safe space for our members and other investors
to engage freely. We have proactively reached out to the Commission for further support and guidance on how to ensure various APIA online forums comply
with the Commerce Act. Our moderation gateway going forward will reflect a balance between user experience/outcome and advice received from the Commission.