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Airbnb Wrestles With New York State Over Its Users’ Identity

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, campaigning in 2010. Credit: Azi Paybarah

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has asked Airbnb for data on hosts who use the service to rent out rooms in the state, reports the Daily News’ Matt Chaban. The company’s public policy lead has vowed to fight the move “with everything we’ve got”:

We believe the Attorney General is only seeking to target an incredibly small number of bad actors who abuse the Airbnb platform. That’s a goal we all share. Bad actors like illegal hotel operators and slumlords aren’t part of our vision and have no place on Airbnb and we hope we can work with State leaders to weed out these individuals.

It’s the latest chapter in a situation whose last latest chapter was the New York City Environmental Control Board’s decicion to dismiss fines against Airbnb rentee Nigel Warren, largely on the grounds that Warren’s roommate was home at the time. Airbnb declared that a major victory, but as a factual matter its impact was limited. People still rent out rooms in a way that some regulators and administrators consider too close to traditional hoteling — or even tenementing — to ignore.

Airbnb, for its part, has pursued the argument that it serves as a platform enabling a community of users to make a little side money renting out space over which they have rights. PR materials frame the company as “a trusted community marketplace.” It’s a self-conception underpinned by the idea that serving as a matchmaker (or less romantically, a digital distribution service) makes Airbnb meaningfully different than someone who might seek to run a tenement.

To carry the notion a bit further, that thinking makes Airbnb into a plural. It’s not a well-funded San Francisco-based company headed by CEO Brian Chesky. It’s a community of users whose actions should fall below the level of stuff the government needs to crack down on.

Not for nothing was Chesky’s blog post on Thursday explaining the company’s willingness to work with New York State titled “Who We Are, What We Stand For”:


We all agree that illegal hotels are bad for New York, but that is not our community. ¬†Our community is made up of thousands of amazing people with kind hearts. When Hurricane Sandy struck in late 2012, our hosts opened 1,400 homes to stranded evacuees. They didn’t provide just a place to stay: they personally connected with victims and offered comfort and support in a time of need.

While our guests and hosts have already made a substantial positive contribution, this is just the beginning. We imagine a more accessible New York that even more people can afford to visit, where extra space in people’s homes will not go to waste, and where millions of visitors patronize neighborhood small businesses across all five boroughs. This will be a city where tens of thousand of jobs for people like photographers, tour guides, and chefs will be created to support this thriving new ecosystem.

Seemingly to thwart Schneiderman’s crackdown, the company had agreed to start working toward having hosts collect hotel occupancy tax and attempting to police users who simply Airbnb a space over and over again, removing viable housing from the market. But the company is straining to make a distinction between “illegal hotels” and what Airbnb users do. “Our hosts are not hotels,” Chesky insists. But New York State doesn’t seem to know what they are, then. Schneiderman, for one, isn’t buying the notion that they’re just, per Chesky, “regular people” that should be left to operate outside the boundaries of regulation.

That leaves the company with the challenge of attempting to define the concept of “Airbnb host” as a new sort of thing that, while weighted with some of the obligations conveyed by running something of a small business, doesn’t suddenly become so burdensome that it’s simply not worth it for would-be hosts. It’s probably not hyperbolic to say that the future of the company is riding on getting that definition right.

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.

Tags: new york cityreal estateshared cityairbnb