Gotham Gazette

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The City Council's Dangerous Affront to Privacy

City Council Airbnb

(photo: John McCarten)

For more than 30 years, a variety of federal laws have protected the personal data of Americans online at a time of unprecedented technological development. These laws have helped foster the growth of many iconic American companies -- Amazon, Ebay, Google, Twitter, and Airbnb, just to name a few -- and create a thriving tech economy that employs hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, and many more from coast to coast.

And yet, despite this extraordinary success, a bill pushed in the New York City Council by the hotel industry threatens to undermine these core privacy protections, setting a dangerous precedent that undermines the trust and security that formed the basis for the Internet’s explosive growth.

That bill-- Intro 981-- would blow a hole the size of a MAC truck through federal protections, forcing individuals who use platforms like Airbnb to disclose their private information to the government, all to protect the hotel industry’s record profits.

This type of bill should send chills down the spine of any New Yorker who values his or her privacy online and believes that a free and open Internet requires a commitment to protecting sensitive, personal information.

To start, if the government can force Airbnb to disclose the most precious information of their users without reproach, what’s to prevent it from forcing Google, Amazon, Ebay, a news publication, or any other website from doing the same?

That may read as deeply Orwellian cynicism, but such a slippery slope is not entirely unprecedented. In fact, the City itself has just recently felt the threat of lost privacy, on the behalf of undocumented residents who fear the consequences of their personal information falling into the hands of immigration officials. Those very concerns led the City to destroy potentially sensitive records gathered as part of its IDNYC program to ensure that they could not fall into other hands.

The impact of lost privacy is also far from hypothetical for Airbnb hosts across the five boroughs, some of whom have already had their privacy violated at the hands of special investigators working for the hotel industry and New York City’s Office of Special Enforcement.

That includes middle class home sharers like Skip in Sunset Park, who began sharing a portion of his family home when he developed medical issues that made it difficult to make ends meet. The extra income from opening his doors ensured he wouldn’t have to sell the home in which he was raised.

And yet, Skip is one of countless Airbnb hosts who has been targeted by the Office of Special Enforcement for sharing his own space, with investigators appearing at his door and asking one his guests to enter without a warrant. In Skip’s words, as a result of the investigators’ action: “I felt like I’m not safe in my own home.”

In seeking to empower the very agency --  an agency that has worked hand in glove with a hotel industry set on destroying home sharing in New York, no matter what the cost for everyday New Yorkers -- that threatened Skip’s privacy with all hosts’ personal information, the City Council is making a clear statement on how it values the online security (not to mention, the economic stability) of regular New Yorkers.

If Council members were concerned about more than protecting the record profits of an industry that donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to their campaigns, it wouldn’t be difficult to work together to find a way to share data to target truly bad actors, while cementing privacy protections that ensure the security of personal data online.

Airbnb knows this better than anyone. After all, we’ve worked with cities across the country and around the world to achieve responsible regulation that provides government with the tools to enforce the law against bad actors while safeguarding the identities of regular, responsible hosts and the economic lifeline that home sharing represents for their families.

We stand ready to do the same here in New York City.

In the meantime, the need to protect and defend our privacy is as urgent and necessary as ever. As the battleground turns to the New York City Council, each of us must raise our voices and reject industry-backed efforts to sacrifice our privacy at the altar of profit.

Andrew Kalloch is the Americas Policy Manager for Airbnb. On Twitter @AndrewKalloch and @Airbnb.

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