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New York AG's office: Airbnb lying about user-data subpoena

The state attorney general's office fires back after Airbnb's motion to block a request to give up user data.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman
New York attorney general's office

New York State's top lawyer says Airbnb is exaggerating about how much customer data the state is asking the company to hand over.

On Friday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office filed a motion defending its need to access the user data of Airbnb's New York City hosts.

The peer-to-peer home rental company previously protested that the state authorities are overstepping a legal boundary. However, the New York AG's office is not backing down from its earlier demand, saying that the subpoena filed in early October applies only to people who are breaking the law.

What's more, the AG's press secretary, Matt Mittenthal, said Airbnb's statements to the public are not true.

"We began this process in the hopes of collaborating with Airbnb to recover millions of dollars in unpaid taxes, and to stop the abuse of Airbnb's site by operators of illegal hotels," he said in a statement to CNET. "Unfortunately, Airbnb chose instead to obstruct those efforts and lie about our objectives. Airbnb isn't standing up for average New Yorkers who rent out their apartments from time to time -- Airbnb is standing up for highly profitable, illegal businesses that make up a huge chunk of its corporate revenue."

The comment was in response to the filing of an amicus brief from the Internet Association, a tech lobbying group that is not involved with the case but counts the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and of course Airbnb as members. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology also filed a supporting brief on Friday, jointly citing privacy concerns.

Both briefs, similar to Airbnb's motion, argue that the AG's office was casting too wide a net for user data. According to Airbnb's previous posts, it has 225,000 community members in New York, but the AG's office is specifically looking for data on 15,000 hosts.

For its part, the company said it does want to work with local government on this issue.

"It's unfortunate that the attorney general's office continues to demand personal information about thousands of regular New Yorkers," Airbnb responded in an e-mail comment to CNET. "We want to work with policymakers to make Airbnb and New York stronger, but this is nothing more than a fishing expedition, and we'll continue to fight for our community."

Airbnb fileda motion last month to block the subpoena, arguing that it was too broad and that the law the AG's office is using to ask for the subpoena is "unconstitutionally vague."

But in the motion filed Friday the AG's office argues that the request is only for information that has to do with hosts who are breaking the law, including the gross revenue generated from those rentals and "related information." The court document defines this information as names; addresses; dates and the cost of rentals; and whether a host was staying at the apartment during the rental period, according to the court document. The office also wants stats on how many times a place was rented and what kind of taxes were paid with each transaction.

"The subpoena was purposefully narrowed to seek information only about hosts that would be violating the law," the AG's motion reads. "The NYAG is entitled to a presumption of good faith in the issuance of subpoenas, and recipients of subpoenas must comply unless the subpoena seeks documents that are 'utterly irrelevant' to the inquiry."

Airbnb has previously acknowledged that there are users who violate the law and has said it wants to work with the AG to stop them, as well as work with the state to collect hotel occupancy tax.

Airbnb has "been wholly uncooperative, seeking instead to step into the shoes of law enforcement and dictate the scope of the NYAG's investigation," according to the motion.