Consumer Watchdog Attacks San Francisco Airbnb Restrictions As ‘Unwarranted Intrusion Into Users’ Privacy’

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Consumer Watchdog, one of the state's best known consumer advocacy groups, is raising a ruckus about proposed rules it says would violate privacy rights by requiring Airbnb and similar companies to report about users' rental activities.

Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog on Monday released a letter it sent to ShareBetter SF, a coalition of San Francisco groups that is hoping to qualify a city ballot initiative to impose stricter regulations and penalties on online short term rental platforms. Airbnb has raised similar concerns.

“As written, your initiative is an unwarranted intrusion into users’ privacy and inappropriately requires the home sharing platform to do the enforcement work that should rightfully be done by the city,” the letter states, calling the initiative "antithetical to San Francisco’s core values."

ShareBetter SF co-founder Dale Carlson rejected the criticism, saying that Airbnb having to report about host activities would be like all the other businesses that submit financial data about employees or independent contractors to government for tax purposes.

"How are municipalities supposed to monitor compliance with an annual cap on rental nights if hosts and/or hosting platforms aren’t filing regular reports with enforcement agencies?" Carlson asked.

In addition to ShareBetter's proposed ballot measure, Consumer Watchdog is opposing measures being pushed by San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, that would require reports and fines for violating platforms, and state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, that would enable cities and counties to impose such requirements.

Campos said Monday that Consumer Watchdog "seem to have their facts wrong," and that he has committed to protecting privacy while increasing accountability.

"That's like a person saying they are not going to pay taxes for fear of giving over confidential information," Campos said. "I don't think it's an issue. I think it's more of an excuse."

Still, John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, said that making corporations routinely turn over consumers' private financial information without a subpoena or search warrant would be like requiring EBay to report on all sales made via its platform so that bureaucrats can look for violations.

Another analogous situation, Simpson said, would be for government to require that automobiles be equipped with sensors that would notify the Department of Motor Vehicles whenever motorists exceeded speed limits, something that is technically possible today.

"It's just a crazy blunt approach that is uncalled for," Simpson said.

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