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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Battle Between Airbnb and New York Heats Up

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - Airbnb, a travel website that favors private apartments over hotels, should not have to comply with an attorney general's subpoena on "host" clients, two nonprofits say.

Users of Airbnb can advertise their apartments for rent when they are out of town.

Concerned that these users may be avoiding taxes or operating as illegal hotels, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman served the San Francisco-based service with a subpoena last month.

Noting that there are 225,000 registered users of Airbnb in New York, the subpoena asks for the records, including tax information and addresses, of users who rent out their apartments in New York City, which is about 15,000 users.

Airbnb quickly moved to quash in Albany County Supreme Court, calling the request for information "unreasonably broad" and a "government-sponsored fishing expedition."

Schneiderman fired back, writing that "AirBnb acknowledges that many of its users are violating the law. It has stated publically that it wants to work with law enforcement to 'remove bad actors' and that 'illegal hotel operators ... have no place on AirBnb.' They have also admitted that 'it makes sense for our community to pay hotel occupancy tax.'

"And yet AirBnb has been wholly uncooperative, seeking instead to step into the shoes of law enforcement and dictate the scope of the NYAG's investigation."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) meanwhile teamed up in support of Airbnb with an amicus brief.

They say that "legal processes targeting online intermediaries as a means to get to information about their users en masse raises pronounced privacy concerns."

Schneiderman's "subpoena fails to specify any instances of fraudulent or illegal acts," making it invalid, according to the brief.

In addition the irrelevancy of the requested information, the possibility that "some Airbnb hosts may be violating New York's hotel tax laws does not justify the investigation of an overbroad sweep of Airbnb hosts, especially in light of the fact that the Attorney General has not even alleged any wrongdoing," the groups say.

It is also of note that Airbnb has identified six types of hosts who are exempt from hotel taxes, and these hosts should be excluded from the subpoena, they added.

EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman, who filed the brief, said in a statement that "indiscriminate subpoenas that seek the identity and other personal information of thousands of Internet users without specific justification are improper and should be quashed. It is not enough for the state to speculate that some Airbnb users might have broken some law at some unknown point."

The battle between Airbnb and New York has seen much litigation in the past year. Back in March, a judge determined that Airbnb violates New York's illegal hotel law, a 2010 law which bans New Yorkers from renting apartments for less than 29 days.

The plaintiff in that case, Nigel Warren, was fined $2,400 for renting out his Manhattan condo to a woman he met through the service for three days while he was out of town.

In September, New York's Environmental Control Board overturned that decision, ruling that city housing laws actually permitted the short-term lease because Warren's roommate was present at the time of the stay.

The fine was also repealed, which Airbnb called "a victory for the sharing economy and the countless New Yorkers who make the Airbnb community vibrant and strong."

Airbnb also started an online petition on its website to block Schneiderman's subpoena last month. It has claimed in media reports that an Airbnb user volunteered to deliver the subpoena to the New York Senate if it gets 20,000 signatures.

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