With all of the problems in the world and all of my opinions, if I am going to complain about something, it should be about Something Big, right? No. Other people are doing that exceptionally well and I am trying to avoid giving myself ulcers. So here’s a kvetch about something small and a little bit important.
This week I signed up for an Airbnb “experience” — a two-hour walking tour of Mexico’s lovely and historic San Miguel de Allende. But before Airbnb confirmed my reservation, it sent me a message requiring me to “verify” my identity by providing a copy of my passport because “some hosts require it.”
I checked with my San Miguel tour guide. He didn’t require it.
Over the past four years, I have rented more than 60 accommodations through Airbnb. Until today, Airbnb never required me to provide a copy of my passport. Still, by itself, giving Airbnb a copy of my passport is not a problem for me.
But I suspected something fishy so while my San Miguel tour hung in the balance, I contacted an Airbnb customer service rep who referred me to Airbnb’s new “ID” policy. The policy seems to say that if I provide my government ID to Airbnb, I have agreed to permit Airbnb to share my personal information with government agencies and private corporations without my knowledge or a court order. Allegedly, this is to protect Airbnb hosts and guests from criminals. And if I don’t provide the information, bye bye Airbnb.
I understand that Airbnb wants to make sure I am who I say I am but I don’t understand how that translates to Airbnb needing to share my personal information with corporations and government agencies. (For example, a passport does not permit law enforcement to identify people with guns, or allow a bank to track money laundering, which wouldn’t work very well using Airbnb anyway unless you are trying to launder $3,000 a month). And since when is Airbnb in the business of law enforcement?
In light of what we have been learning about the use of personal information by large corporations and since Airbnb already has a lot of information about me, I have to wonder whether this new requirement is just Airbnb’s way of protecting itself from liability for sharing personal information, which it has probably been doing all along.
Huh. I am not going to empower Big Brother more than I have to but it’s not just this new policy that is going to drive me to hotels. It’s more like the last straw. Although I have had a lot of very good experiences with Airbnb, I am increasingly aware of how Airbnb is making money– and helping property owners make money — leveraging legal loop holes and undermining public policy.
First, Airbnb hosts are able to unlawfully discriminate on the basis of race, gender, and religion. And some do. Airbnb has a policy against discrimination but my personal experience tells me they aren’t motivated to enforce their policy or even investigate allegations. The new ID policy could facilitate more discrimination because hosts will be able to see guest photos before they accept a request for a reservation.
Airbnb properties don’t have to follow the safety and health regulations imposed on hotels. I realized the gravity of this when I stayed at an Airbnb property that seemed like a fire waiting to happen. Another one had a very pick-able lock on the front door of a house located in a neighborhood known for its drug dealers.
You can’t avoid these kinds of problems by relying on Airbnb guest reviews because there are ways Airbnb hosts are protected from bad reviews, including reviews that might identify dangers and host lies. It’s boring to explain and read how this works. Better if you take my word for it.
Perhaps most damaging, Airbnb has also contributed to a housing crisis in many communities because many Airbnb properties have been removed from the long-term rental market. (Mention this to your friend who rents Airbnb apartments the next time he says giving a Cambodian cab driver an extra dollar is a bad idea because “tipping changes the local economy.”)
So that’s it for me. I have three Airbnb rentals in the pipeline that aren’t subject to the new Airbnb ID policy and they all look really cool. After that, I’ll adapt.
But thank you Airbnb. We had a good run.