Commentary

Airbnb To Give NY Attorney General 'Anonymized' Data About Hosts

Airbnb has agreed to provide the New York State Attorney General with “anonymized” data about the service's 15,000 hosts who reside in the state.

The home-sharing service says it won't turn over users' names, email addresses, social media account data, tax information or other potentially personally identifiable information. Instead, the company plans to replace its users' names with unique identifiers.

Obviously Airbnb is hoping that the deal will protect its users' privacy -- though it's worth noting that  replacing names (or IP addresses or other data) with unique identifiers isn't always foolproof. AOL's “Data Valdez” -- referring to the company's decision to release search queries for 650,000 "anonymized" users -- showed that people's names could be discovered based on their search queries. Also, researchers at the University of Texas determined that specific Netflix users could be identified by comparing reviews of obscure movies on Netflix with reviews on Imdb.com that were published under screen names.

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Airbnb blogged today that the compromise “appropriately balances the Attorney General’s stated objectives of going after illegal hotels, while protecting as much of our hosts’ personal data as possible.”

The deal gives the Attorney General 12 months to follow up by requesting more details about specific users who are targets of an investigation.

With the agreement, Airbnb and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman are resolving a battle that erupted last year, when Schneiderman demanded detailed information about all New York residents who use the service to rent out their apartments.

Airbnb is popular in New York, where both hotel rates and apartment rents are expensive. The service gives tourists a cheaper way to visit the city, and also lets residents offset their housing costs.

But New Yorkers who rent out their apartments to visitors potentially run afoul of a 2010 law that prohibits people from renting out their homes for less than 30 days, unless they're present. That law's supporters say it discourages landlords from illegally converting residential apartments into short-term hotels.

There are also questions about whether some Airbnb hosts violate a tax law by failing to collect hotel use taxes from guests -- though the tax code has some ambiguities on that point. New York renters also potentially violate their leases by subletting their apartments to tourists.

As part of Airbnb's deal with Schneiderman, the service has promised to alert New York hosts to the various local laws that apply when residents rent out their homes. Some of those regulations make it risky for residents to continue to use the service -- though many who want extra income will probably decide to take their chances.

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