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Airbnb Takes NYC to Court on Data Demand

Swinging back at a data demand it calls unprecedented, Airbnb claims in a federal complaint Friday that the New York City Council authorized warrantless searches of its private business records.

MANHATTAN (CN) - Swinging back at a data demand it calls unprecedented, Airbnb claims in a federal complaint Friday that the New York City Council authorized warrantless searches of its private business records.

“No probable cause, notice, or legal review is contemplated in connection with the bulk collection of this data, and no real restrictions are placed on its use or dissemination,” says the complaint, which was filed in New York’s Southern District. “As such, the ordinance is an unlawful end-run around established restraints on governmental action and violates core constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 12, of the New York Constitution, as well as the federal Stored Communications Act.”

The city council passed the ordinance in question last month. In addition to mandating that Airbnb disclose the names and addresses of all its hosts in the Big Apple, the bill requires data on Airbnb’s users, like the rental listing URL, the number of days the unit is rented and how much the platform collects in fees.

But Airbnb notes that the recipient of this information, the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, has a vested interest: it “works shoulder to shoulder with private investigators hired and paid by the hotel lobby.”

New York City meanwhile precipitated Airbnb’s suit with a petition earlier this week to have Airbnb produce records related to illegal transient housing, as required under subpoena.

Filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, this petition says alleged Airbnb had failed to turn over the records it was required to.

Representatives for Airbnb declined to comment beyond what is in the complaint. The platform’s attorney, Roberta Kaplan with Kaplan, Hecker & Fink, did not return a request for comment Friday.

According to a summary on the City Council website, the homesharing ordinance does call for some data protections: “Any personal information obtained by the city must be protected to the fullest extent of all relevant state, federal and local laws …. and handled in a manner consistent with such laws.”

The bill was introduced in early June 2018 by Democratic Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, who represents parts of lower Manhattan and was previously a housing organizer on the Lower East Side. It was passed unanimously by the Council and signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio just two months later.

“There has been a lot of heated rhetoric around this bill,” Rivera said at a June hearing, according to City Council transcripts, “and I want to reiterate from the beginning today that this bill has one clear priority in mind: protecting our affordable housing stock for the millions of [sic] New York City who could not live here without them.

“This legislation will allow them to pursue more effective oversight and action over this largely unmonitored rental market ... and more effective prosecution of bad actors,” Rivera continued at the hearing.

Rivera’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday, but the group ShareBetter posted a statement from her to its Twitter page.

“This lawsuit comes from the same old playbook that Airbnb uses in every other city to try & intimidate municipal governments into sweetheart deals,” Rivera said. “But we won’t let that happen here in NYC."

Soon after Rivera introduced the bill, Airbnb released a own report that accused City Council members of being bought by the powerful hotel lobby. Rivera is listed as having taken nearly $34,000 in campaign contributions from the hotel industry in the 2013 and 2017 campaign cycles. The list also says Council Speaker Corey Johnson took in more than $15,000.

Information from the New York City Campaign Finance Board confirmed Rivera received $22,822 from Hotel Workers for Stronger Communities — a routine big spender in city elections — during the 2017 cycle. That group did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.

A 2014 investigation by former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found that short-term rentals in the city experienced “explosive growth” between 2010 and 2014, and most of them violated state or city laws — for example that they should be paying hotel occupancy taxes. About 6 percent number of Airbnb hosts, Schneiderman found, controlled 37 percent of the revenue because they were “commercial” renters, or people who rented out “up to hundreds” of unique units at a time.

The City Council is not the only group to take action — the New York state Legislature also passed regulatory measures on companies like Airbnb in 2016.

It’s been a rough summer in the city for the sharing economy as officials have cracked down with restrictions and regulations on companies. The city Council voted earlier this month to put a year-long cap on new ride-sharing vehicles like Uber and Lyft.

But city officials say they’re doing the right thing.

“This law provides the City with the critical data it needs to preserve our housing stock, keep visitors safe, and ensure residents feel secure in their homes and neighborhoods, and the city will defend it,” said Christian Klossner, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, in an email Friday.

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