Internet Privacy Groups Say Attorney General's Airbnb Subpoena is an Illegal "Fishing Expedition" for Information on Users

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Flickr/Phil Campbell
We can't stop thinking about sleeping in this weird Swedish trailer.
As you're likely aware by now, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is deeply unhappy with Airbnb, which allows you a quick, easy way to sleep in stranger's houses. Earlier this year, Airbnb helped a New York host named Nigel Warren win an appeal against a $2,400 fine from the city for hosting two Russian tourists. In October, Schneiderman's office subpoenaed the San Francisco-based company for data on all its New York users; in a statement to tech site CNET in November, Schneiderman explained that his office hoped to "collaborate" with Airbnb "recover millions of dollars in unpaid taxes, and to stop the abuse of Airbnb's site by operators of illegal hotels."

Instead, the company pushed back, launching a petition drive to try to change New York state law to allow homeowners to rent out their space more easily. On their blog, Airbnb's head of global public policy, David Hantman, vowed not to comply with the subpoena, calling it "unreasonably broad" and a "government-sponsored fishing expedition."

The company is now trying to quash the subpoena in Albany County Supreme Court, and two powerful internet privacy nonprofits have stepped in to help.

As Courthouse News first reported, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy & Technology have filed a joint amicus brief in support of Airbnb. In a press release earlier this week, EFF's senior staff attorney, Mark Zimmerman, said, "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. An online service's users deserve to be protected from fishing expeditions like this one."

In his own statement, G.S. Hans, a fellow at the CDT, argued that the problem is the type of data Schneiderman is asking for.

"Airbnb user data contains names, addresses, email addresses, rates, and duration of
specific stays," he wrote. "If Airbnb provided all this data pursuant to the subpoena, the government would amass a vast trove of sensitive data that would provide a high amount of information about the users' movements (most of which, presumably, involve stays outside New York)."

The two nonprofits write in their brief that the attorney general has not filed a lawsuit against Airbnb, nor has his office said that the company itself is under investigation. They also accuse Schneiderman of ignoring an offer from Airbnb to start paying hotel taxes. They argue that law-abiding Internet users have a right "to have the records of their activities shielded from unauthorized government snooping." They also argue that the AG hasn't adequately demonstrated why the subpoena is necessary, and call on the court to make it go away.

Meanwhile, the online petition to "legalize sharing" and keep Airbnb in business is still active; to date, nearly 200,000 people have signed.

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New York is losing more and more affordable housing stock, in no small part due to Airbnb. More websites like airbnb and showing up for example there is this site called “lesfrenchy” which is for people from Europe looking for a place in NY. Tons of illegal places in manhanttan brooklyn & queens are listed everyday! I searched this site and got over 400 hits. Many students are risking there lives at many of these places paying outrageous prices for staying and being defrauded by tenants. Here is an example a woman called “Madame V” in Chinatown her real name is “Virginie Sommet” undetected for 15 years created illegal shady SRO Slum Lord Hotels, she had two huge lofts full of beds in Chinatown. These shady lofts according to many sources had rats, bedbugs and loaded with fire hazards. These bedroom partitions housed up to as many 20 people per loft with only one shower and bathroom, the rooms were a disgrace for anyone to live under. Her Gallery was a front for that hotels, she made off with thousands of dollars ripped off from unsuspecting tourist & students who lived in horrible conditions. Rent ranged from $1,700 to $1,100, per month, plus incidentals and cleaning charges. How could the city not know about this for 15 years? She was shut down but still moves to different places doing the same thing getting away with fraud & deceit in Brooklyn now at 137 Decatur St playing with the community there now.

How come the city has problems catching people like this? This city is loosing money then go and catch people like this who are not working honesty and hemorrhaging the city ? 

New York really needs to crack down!!

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