Consumer Watchdog agrees with Supervisor David Campos that corporate influence on our laws has reached an unhealthy level.
In fact, our public-interest group was behind Proposition J, a San Francisco ballot initiative enacting strong public-ethics measures in 2000.
Unfortunately, the Board of Supervisors subsequently eviscerated its protections, which required that no gift, job or dollars could flow to a public official from an interest group the official has benefited.
Whether it’s Airbnb on one side, or hotels, hotel workers, and wealthy or fed-up homeowners on the other, money is part of politics. When considering proposals like Campos’ home-sharing ordinance or another put forth by Pacific Stock Exchange Founder Doug Engmann, one must scrutinize the details.
Clearly local governments have the right to regulate home sharing and should collect taxes. They can require occupancy taxes, business licenses from those offering accommodations, restrict the number of nights that accommodations can be offered, or allow sharing only in certain areas.
What government must not do is unnecessarily violate people’s privacy on a wholesale basis and turn businesses into an enforcement arm of government.
Unfortunately, that’s what the ordinance proposed by Campos and supervisors John Avalos and Eric Mar would do. The ballot initiative proposed by Engmann, public-relations executive Dale Carlson and housing activist Calvin Welch suffers from the same flaws. Both would require unwarranted intrusion into users’ privacy and inappropriately require home-sharing platforms to do the enforcement work that should rightfully be done by The City.
The Campos ordinance and the ballot initiative would require home-sharing sites to routinely turn over to San Francisco individuals’ private financial information about the number of nights they rented their homes and amount paid for the rental of their property through the site. It is an unprecedented data dump.
Traditionally, search warrants and subpoenas are needed to get a corporation to turn over an individual’s personal financial data. Campos and the Engmann group would turn this upside down.
Imagine the outcry if California’s Franchise Tax Board required eBay to report the name, number of sales and amount collected in each sale for every person selling tchotchkes through the site, in order to seek out income tax cheats. Californians value privacy so highly we guaranteed it in the state Constitution. The users of home-sharing sites have no less right to privacy simply because the companies may be unpopular with some.
Americans balk at this kind of mass data collection when the government does it in the name of preventing terrorism. Why would San Franciscans, whose core values are rooted in individual freedoms, subject homeowners to such intrusions when the government’s aim is to catch homeowners violating zoning codes or skimping on their taxes? Requiring e-commerce sites to turn over all 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.
Instead, officials should investigate specific alleged violations when there is a clear justification and limited necessary records could be subpoenaed. Individual audits could be required when there was a good reason to believe someone was not paying their occupancy tax.
However, the blunt approach to enforcement contemplated by the Campos ordinance and the Engmann group ballot initiative is a slippery slope and a significant threat to privacy. It doesn’t matter whose big bucks are behind the opposition to bad policy. It’s still bad policy.
John M. Simpson is Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. Visit the organization’s website at http://www.consumerwatchdog.org.