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Airbnb should be legally on the hook for illegal rental listings, Hawaii rep says

Airbnb should be legally on the hook for illegal rental listings, Hawaii rep says
[Photo: Rachael Marker/Unsplash]

The tech industry’s favorite law is facing another attack on Capitol Hill, this time from a congressman looking to curb errant rental listings on Airbnb. In an unsurprising twist, the lawmaker also has ties to the hotel industry.

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Representative Ed Case, a so-called Blue Dog Democrat who represents Hawaii’s 1st district, told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last month that Congress should look more closely at how the liability shield famously enshrined in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is being exploited by large home-sharing platforms. Case cites data estimating that one out of every 24 housing units in Hawaii was a short-term rental in 2017, with entire residential neighborhoods having effectively been transformed into the “functional equivalent of hotel zones,” thanks to the mass scale of home sharing enabled by companies like Airbnb and HomeAway.

“There should be a way to compel short-term rental platforms to remove these illegal units from their inventory, and yet CDA 230 serves as a roadblock in that effort,” Case said in written testimony to the committee on July 25.

Case goes on to ask that the committee “formally examine this and other abuses of CDA 230.” According to a “dear colleague” letter obtained by Fast Company, he’s also seeking cosponsors for legislation called the Protecting Local Authority and Neighborhoods, or PLAN Act, which would amend Section 230 to make it clear that it doesn’t shield platforms that facilitate illegal rental bookings.

His plan is surely not going to go over well with tech advocates who have long championed Section 230 as the lifeblood of all that we cherish about the internet. Passed in 1996, the landmark law shields online platforms from liability for most content posted by third parties. It’s one of the reasons why, for instance, Twitter isn’t on the hook for every libelous tweet that makes it onto its platform, and it’s often credited for providing the legal certainty that has allowed the modern internet to flourish.

The law has been the focus of some debate in recent years as tech platforms have grown in power and influence. It’s also become a favorite punching bag of Republicans like Ted Cruz, who have falsely implied that Section 230 requires tech platforms to be politically neutral when considering what content to remove. On the contrary: The law actually provides a framework that lets online platforms moderate content without fear of being treated as publishers.

While attacks from aggrieved conservatives may be the Section 230 complaint du jour, less common is an argument like the one Case is making. In suggesting that Section 230 could be amended to specifically address illegal home rentals, the Hawaii lawmaker sees a legal precedent in FOSTA, a recently passed amendment to Section 230 that allows enforcement against online providers that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking.

“We have a valuable template in the FOSTA legislation that passed the House by a vote of 388-25 and was signed into law last year, which could be replicated to cover other illegal online sales,” Case writes.

Consider the source

Case surely has a legitimate concern about the extent to which home sharing is having an impact on housing stock—particularly in a tourism hotbed like Honolulu—although he may not be the most objective messenger. Prior to his most recent congressional bid, he was on the board of directors of a hotel lobbying group called AH&LA in 2016 and was also a senior vice president at Outrigger Enterprises Group, a hospitality company.

Reached for comment, Case tells Fast Company through a spokesperson that he quit the AH&LA board in 2017 and has no “personal or professional engagements with the visitor industry.” He also points out that tourism is the top economic generator and private employer in his district. “I am not concerned about any conflict of interest, although I’m sure the online platforms who oppose this measure will seek to discredit the messenger as opposed to debate the merits,” he says.

Philip Minardi, a spokesman for HomeAway parent Expedia Group, says in a statement to Fast Company that Case’s policy framework “jeopardizes the important collaboration already taking place in communities.” He says Expedia has reached compromises with cities such as Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky, to help enact regulations that address community concerns while also allowing homeowners the option to share their homes. “We welcome the opportunity to explore our ongoing efforts with Congressman Case,” Minardi adds.

Airbnb declined to comment directly but referred Fast Company to the Internet Association, a lobbying group that represents the tech industry. The group sent the following statement from Michael Bloom, its senior vice president of global government affairs.

“CDA 230 makes the best of the internet possible. The law enables a wide range of services and business models that consumers love and rely upon. The internet is a borderless medium that doesn’t stop at city or state lines, which is why lawmakers crafted CDA 230 as a national law.”

Efforts to regulate big tech companies are resonating across the political spectrum in the lead-up to 2020. In addition to conservative (and centrist) complaints about Section 230, left-wing politicians like senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have stepped up their attacks on what they perceive as tech monopolies.

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