The case being made against Airbnb by New York prosecutors took an interesting turn when the internet company agreed to hand over information about some of its users recently.
Many users might be shocked that to find they have been operating in breach of local laws or that their information is being handed over to authorities in this way. Others may of course be fully aware that they were operating illegally.
It serves as a useful reminder to individuals and small businesses using these types of internet services that they should make sure they do their homework to avoid running into legal problems.
New York Airbnb Users Could Face Prosecution
The New York attorney general had requested that Airbnb disclose information on its hosts after claiming that around 60 per cent of its listings in New York City were for illegally operated hotels. Airbnb initially challenged the request on the basis that the laws were never meant to apply to homeowners occasionally renting out their homes but the company has quickly changed its tune.
Although the investigation does appear to focus on wilful illegality, individuals or small business operators that have been using Airbnb to earn some extra cash may have accidentally found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Airbnb's David Hantman commented, "We wanted to do everything we could to avoid turning over data on thousands of regular New Yorkers, so we continued to work with the attorney general's office and we now believe we have reached an agreement that will protect the privacy of thousands of Airbnb hosts, while allowing the attorney general to investigate bad actors and move us forward."
This raises an issue that frequently foxes end users of internet platforms – laws and regulations designed to protect consumers and other parties can and do apply to goods and services sold over the internet. Even where internet platforms have created ‘grey areas’, civil and even criminal liability may flow to end users if authorities decide to take a hard line.
In circumstances where authorities request information from internet companies on users for the basis of legitimate investigations or legal claims, passing that information on is normally allowed within terms and conditions. Thus users cannot expect to rely on confidentiality, privacy or data protection laws to keep them out of trouble.
There will always be those who deliberately take advantage of the internet’s current lack of regulation to skirt existing laws but innocent operators can easily fall foul through simple ignorance. Relying on service providers structuring their offerings to keep you out of trouble is a poor substitute for ensuring that you are compliant. Ignorance of the law is no defence and providers can often avoid direct liability for user indiscretions through various ‘hosting’ defences.