Internet Privacy Groups Say Attorney General’s Airbnb Subpoena is an Illegal “Fishing Expedition” for Information on Users


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.