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Digital Rights Groups Say NY Has No Right To Snoop On Airbnb Users
Posted: Nov 11, 2013, 7:51 PM
Airbnb’s New York users have the right to keep the records of their activity “shielded from unauthorized snooping,” the advocacy groups Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Democracy & Technology argue in new court papers.
The organizations say that even though law enforcement officials are empowered to investigate crime, they can’t simply issue a broad subpoena in hopes of uncovering evidence. “If courts readily allow such overbroad subpoenas, a chilling effect would be cast over users who know that their privacy interests can be compromised at the whim of an overambitious attorney general,” the groups argue in a proposed friend-of-the-court brief urging a state judge to nix the Attorney General’s subpoena for information about Airbnb users.
The organizations’ attempt to weigh in on the case marks the latest development in what’s shaping up to be a major battle between law enforcement authorities and Airbnb, which is probably the best-known example of the so-called “sharing economy.”
Airbnb allows people to rent out their homes to tourists. The service is popular in New York, where visitors seek alternatives to pricey hotels, and residents look for ways to offset the high price of real estate.
But a 2010 law makes it illegal for people to rent out their homes for less than 30 days, unless they’re also present. That law’s supporters say the measure discourages landlords from illegally converting residential apartments into short-term hotels. Backers of the measure also argue that short-term visitors present a security risk to residential tenants. Separately, there are questions about whether Airbnb hosts are violating a tax law by failing to collect hotel use taxes from guests.
The Attorney General recently served Airbnb with a subpoena demanding information about the names of state residents who have hosted guests through the service since 2010. Schneiderman also is seeking information about the length of stays, rates charged, and communications between the users and Airbnb about tax issues. The Attorney General says he is only seeking data about people who didn’t remain at home when the renters were present — but Airbnb says it has no way of knowing which users remained in their apartments when visitors were present.
Last month, Airbnb asked a court to quash the subpoena. On Friday, Schneiderman’s office opposed that motion. The Attorney General says that law enforcement officials have no other realistic way to investigate the “illegal activities” of New York users.
AirBnb should not be allowed to effectively close an investigation before it even starts, or otherwise shield its hosts from illegal conduct,” the Attorney General argues.
The government adds that a search for a “non-shared” apartment available for rent between Dec. 2 and 7 in New York resulted in more than 1,000 listings. “On their face, these listings violate the short-term zoning laws because they are rentals for under 30 days in New York City in non-shared spaces,” the government argues. “Absent a subpoena to Airbnb, the (New York Attorney General) would have to enter into undercover transactions with each host in order to merely identify them.”
Airbnb has been arguing that it benefits the city economically. The company recently unveiled a study it commissioned by HR&A Advisors, which concluded that the 416,000 Airbnb users who visited in the last year had a total economic impact on the city of $632 million.
The dispute hasn’t just drawn the attention of rights groups. The Internet Association — a coalition of tech companies — also sided with Airbnb late last week. That group filed friend-of-the-court papers arguing that online businesses shouldn’t be required to disclose data about their customers to the government.