Consumer Watchdog Challenges Proponents Of San Francisco Home Sharing Regulation Ballot Initiative To Withdraw Measure’s Privacy Flaws That Violate City’s Core Values

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Santa Monica, CA – Consumer Watchdog today called on the proponents of a San Francisco ballot initiative that would regulate home sharing platforms, like Airbnb, to withdraw the measure’s privacy violating provisions that are “antithetical to San Francisco’s core values.”

The nonprofit nonpartisan group took issue with the provision of the initiative requiring corporations to routinely turn over an individual’s private financial information, in this case their income and the number of nights they rent their homes, without a subpoena or search warrant, which is currently the law.

“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,” wrote Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court and John M. Simpson, the group’s Privacy Project director.

“San Francisco has been a leader in standing up for personal privacy and civil liberties in the face of government intrusion, including passing resolutions against the collection of sensitive financial information under the Patriot Act and even by mass transit agencies,” Consumer Watchdog’s letter said. “The city has a history of being a symbol of liberty and freedom for individuals. Your initiative’s pioneering of such privacy intrusions for San Francisco would be like the City of New York opposing immigration reform.  It’s antithetical to San Francisco’s core values.”

Read the letter to Doug Engmann, Dale Carlson and Calvin Welch founders of San Franciscans for Neighborhoods, Affordable Housing & Jobs and proponents of the ballot measure here:

“Ensuring that owners renting their homes online pay appropriate taxes need not require California citizens to relinquish their right to privacy. Unfortunately, that is what your proposed ballot initiative imposing regulations on home sharing would do,” the letter said. “We call upon you to withdraw the provisions of the initiative that set what the Los Angeles Times editorial board recently called ‘a dangerous precedent.’”

Read the Times editorial here: ( Court and Simpson pointed also noted a San Francisco Chronicle editorial that opined against the anti-privacy provision. Read the Chronicle editorial:

Corporations have traditionally only had to turn over private financial information of individuals in the face of a warrant or subpoena, Consumer Watchdog said. The proposed ballot initiative would require Internet home sharing sites, such as Airbnb, to turn over to San Francisco, individual’s private financial information about the number of nights they rented their homes and amount paid for the rental of their property through the site.

Consumer Watchdog’s letter continued:

“Americans balk at this kind of mass data collection when the government does it in the name of preventing terrorism. Why would it be acceptable when the government’s aim is to catch homeowners violating zoning codes or skimping on their taxes? …

“The legitimacy of sweeping government demands for Internet users’ transactional and personal data personal data is the central privacy question of our time. Requiring e-commerce sites to turn over all their personal data so enforcement officials can scour through records and search for potential violations of local laws amounts to a blank search warrant and a basic violation of our civil rights.

“A government request for personally identifiable data should carefully balance the right to privacy against the right to safety and security for the public. Judges typically need to issue warrants for such information because it is considered each citizen’s right to protect it. Throwing open the door to mass data collection  – with no legal justification like a warrant – would deal a serious blow to privacy rights in San Francisco.”

Consumer Watchdog said it does not object to requiring people offering home sharing accommodations to get a business license and to pay occupancy taxes to the city, nor does it object to the city exercising its zoning rights – whether it is to limit home sharing, vacation rentals, or prohibit them all together.

“People using home sharing sites to offer accommodations should follow zoning laws and pay their taxes.  However, the blunt approach to enforcement contemplated by your ballot initiative is a slippery slope and a significant threat to privacy,” the letter concluded. “We urge you to delete the privacy invasive provisions from your proposed initiative that require the surrender of users’ personal information.”


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Jamie Court
Jamie Court
Consumer Watchdog's President and Chairman of the Board is an award-winning and nationally recognized consumer advocate. The author of three books, he has led dozens of campaigns to reform insurance companies, financial institutions, energy companies, political accountability and health care companies.

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