NY court squashes AG's request for Airbnb user info

A fight over the user data for thousands of New York hosts on the peer-to-peer service comes to a head.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
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A New York state judge decided Tuesday that the state's attorney general can't collect the personal information of thousands of Airbnb hosts to look for people who are breaking the law.

Judge Gerald W. Connolly ruled that the New York attorney general's subpoena, which asked for the data of an estimated 15,000 New York residents, was "overbroad." Connolly also denied the attorney general's motion that would have forced Airbnb to provide the data.

This decision arrives after a heated and very public battle for Airbnb, an online peer-to-peer service that lets residents rent out their homes on a temporary basis. The company has been vocal about its objection to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's request, but it expressed a desire to work with the attorney general going forward despite the legal battle.

"This decision is good news for New Yorkers who simply want to share their home and the city they love," Airbnb said in a statement. "Now, it's time for us to work together. Airbnb hosts and the Attorney General share a common goal: we all want to make New York a better place to live, work and visit. We look forward to continuing to work with the attorney general's office to make New York stronger for everyone."

The attorney general's office has yet to respond to a request for comment, but the Washington Post reported that the office is already in the process of filing a different subpoena that will comply with the court's directive.

The attorney general's office filed a subpoena for the host data in early October, saying that it's only targeting users who are breaking the law by listing their homes for short-term rentals on Airbnb. Some parts of New York are not zoned for these types of rentals in an attempt to prevent people from operating illegal hotels. Airbnb has been quietly scrubbing these listings from its site.

Specifically, the attorney general's office was looking for names, addresses, dates, cost of rentals, and whether a host was staying at the apartment during the rental period, according to court documents. The office also wanted to know how many times a place was rented and what kind of taxes were paid with each transaction.

This ruling could shape what happens with Airbnb policy in other cities, including San Francisco, the company's hometown, where enforcement has been a problem. Globally, several cities have written new laws to accommodate short-term rentals as the service grows in popularity.

The Internet Association, a tech lobbying group that counts companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Airbnb among its members, has thrown its support behind the company, calling the attorney general's subpoena "reckless." The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology, citing privacy concerns, have also come out against the attorney general's request.

But the government did not back down. In April, representatives from federal, state, and local levels of government actually held a press event in Harlem on the morning of the hearing to further protest Airbnb's service, while also throwing their support behind the attorney general office's subpoena.

New York State Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), an avid Airbnb detractor who sponsored the "illegal hotel law" in 2010, also voiced her support for the office's actions when the two parties went to court in April.

"Airbnb, a tech titan valued at $10 billion, has made a decision to profit off of New York City and the everyday people who live here by allowing scofflaws to run large-scale illegal hotel operations on their site and by encouraging everyday New Yorkers to rent out their apartments and open themselves to the risk of eviction -- without even properly warning them. Airbnb thinks they can buy, bully, and lawyer their way out of respecting our local laws," she said in a statement in April.

Airbnb reportedly raised $475 million in funding recently, making it worth $10 billion. The company recently revised its terms of service agreements to warn uses to be mindful of local laws.

Updated, 4:11 p.m. PT: Added report of the attorney general working on a new subpoena.