The ongoing legal back-and-forth between New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, and the room-letting company Airbnb has reached a denouement of sorts, with both parties agreeing to a scheme that will result in the handing over of entries from the company’s database of host records.
At issue had been a subpoena issued this fall by Schneiderman’s office that would have forced the wholesale release of the usage records of Airbnb hosts, part of a bid by the attorney general’s office to see if said hosts were complying with local tax and housing occupancy laws. Airbnb resisted the subpoena strongly, and at the start of last week they received something of a reprieve: A judge in New York’s supreme court threw out the subpoena on the grounds that it was overly broad. But Schneiderman’s office very quickly issued a more narrowly tailored subpoena, and that’s the order that Airbnb agreed to comply with today.
Under this new agreement, Airbnb and the AG have agreed to a two-step matching process designed, by all appearances, to circumvent the argument that his earlier request had the effect of being too invasive. Airbnb agreed to release to Schneiderman’s office records on past hosts, with production of those materials starting within three weeks and taking no longer than a month.
But here are the two important bits: (1) Those records will be anonymized on Airbnb’s end, scrubbed of not just names but exact addresses and tax identification numbers, and (2) for a year after the production of those records is complete, Airbnb will match those anonymized records with their identifying records for any host that the attorney general identifies as worthy of being the subject of ongoing investigation.
Or, more briefly put, the company has agreed to hand over identifying records for hosts who possibly broke the law while using Airbnb, and that’s true even though the company didn’t alert them at the time that they might be doing so.
As a corrective going forward, Airbnb also agreed to present users in New York State with this notice before listing their property, so that if they continue to violate existing law, they know they’re doing it:
This is, in short, not a terrific outcome for Airbnb. That they’re giving over records on their hosts’ activities to the powers-that-be despite the fact that hosts weren’t given explicit notice that they could be running afoul of the law — and despite warnings that that’s exactly what it was doing — may well come across as a breech of faith between it and its users. Schneiderman’s office got exactly what it was looking for, as there’s no reason to believe that it ever had interest in those now-protected hosts who couldn’t possibly have been breaking the law. And now the company has to let users in New York City know of the many ways they could run into legal trouble simply by participating in the intended use of their platform. Again, not great.
Airbnb’s best recourse at this point is likely to do what it can to get the laws changed in New York State so that what it does falls clearly between the lines of what’s legally acceptable. If that’s what the company is indeed up to now, it doesn’t seem to have yet said. Airbnb’s public policy blog, which has been tracking the events in New York closely, has been silent since celebrating last week’s dismissal of Schneiderman’s now moot first subpoena.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.