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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Airbnb Is Already Sharing Non-Anonymized User Data with SF

Posted By on Thu, Nov 12, 2015 at 2:22 PM

click to enlarge JULIA CARRIE WONG
  • Julia Carrie Wong
Airbnb changed its tune on cooperating with local governments yesterday. The company announced a "Community Compact," pledging that it would start to collect and pay local hotel taxes, share anonymized user data with cities about the impact of Airbnb rentals on the local economy and housing markets, and "work to help" ensure that hosts are only listing their "permanent homes," not setting up de-facto hotels (and taking housing units off of a stressed market). 

The cooperative tone of the announcement — "We are 100 percent committed to being constructive partners with regulatory agencies and policymakers," it says — strikes a markedly different tone from the company's post-Election Day announcement that it was going to build an organization comparable to the National Rifle Association to lobby for favorable regulations (or the lack thereof) in cities across the country.

In San Francisco, where Airbnb has already begun collecting and remitting hotel tax, the key facet of the "Community Compact" is the commitment to data sharing. 

In outlining the details of what kind of information will be reported, the company has insisted that "anonymizing" the data is paramount. (Throughout its $8.3 million campaign against Prop. F, Airbnb spokesmen repeatedly invoked the specter of dictatorships to argue against sharing data with the government.) 

But during the final month of the campaign, Airbnb has already provided non-anonymized data about every San Francisco Airbnb host to the San Francisco Treasurer/Tax Collector (TTX), which has begun issuing warning letters to hosts who haven't yet acquired a business license.

According to Amanda Fried, spokeswoman for city Treasurer Jose Cisneros, Airbnb now provides the city with "details on every single transaction, where the transaction occurred, who the host was, and what the rate was" — a process that began at the end of September.
click to enlarge A letter received by an Airbnb host on Oct. 27
  • A letter received by an Airbnb host on Oct. 27

This disclosure came about because the Treasurer's office has certain requirements for a business to become a "qualified website company." According to Fried, the designation is optional, but only "qualified website companies" are allowed to remit hotel tax on behalf of hosts. These requirements include being up to date on their taxes and submitting certain filings, with all the data described. 

"Without that level of data," Fried told SF Weekly, "we would not be able to know if [a host or Airbnb] was non-compliant." 

Airbnb fulfilled the requirements to become a "qualified website company" at the end of September. 

The data Airbnb submitted is confidential taxpayer information, so it is not shared with the Office of Short-Term Rental or available to other government departments. This means that OSTR still has no means of enforcing the city's current limits on short-term rentals, a key demand of proponents of Prop. F, such as Dale Carson, who called the company's new transparency promises a "smokescreen." 

But the information is being acted on in one way. In October, hosts who have not registered for a business license (a separate requirement than the short-term rental registration) received letters from TTX informing them that they are required to have a business license to perform commercial activities in San Francisco (such as hosting through Airbnb). Hosts without a business license were informed that they must register or delist. 

Asked to explain how Airbnb will decide in which manner and to whom it will provide non-anonymized data, company spokesman Christopher Nulty said, "Different cities have different needs. In addition to committing to making public specific cohorts of anonymized information, we will also work with cities on an individual basis to provide the information they need while always maintaining our commitment to our hosts' and guests' privacy."

Given that Airbnb is already providing non-anonymized data to the San Francisco government, we asked whether it would begin to share similar info with OSTR. The response appears to be no, at least for now.

"Taxpayer data is protected by taxpayer confidentiality," Nulty said by email. 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Treasurer's office informed Airbnb of the requirements for becoming a "qualified website company" at the end of this summer. The rules were distributed to platforms in the summer of 2014. We regret the error. 
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About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Bio:
Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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