Airbnb:

S.F. wants un­reg­is­tered hosts re­moved

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Carolyn Said

Short-term rental firm sues to block new S.F. law on polic­ing web­sites, un­reg­is­tered hosts.

Airbnb went to court Mon­day seek­ing to block forth­com­ing amend­ments to San Fran­cisco law re­quir­ing short­term rental companies to po­lice their web­sites and re­move un­reg­is­tered hosts.

“While we have at­tempted to work with the City on sen­si­ble, law­ful al­ter­na­tives to this flawed new or­di­nance, we re­gret that we are forced to now ask a fed­eral court to in­ter­vene in this mat­ter,” Airbnb wrote in a blog post. The com­pany’s suit in the U.S. District Court of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia seeks an in­junc­tion to sus­pend the new rules, claim­ing that they vi­o­late fed­eral laws, in­clud­ing the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions De­cency Act, the Stored Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Act and the First Amend­ment.

The is­sue of turn­ing homes into ho­tels has long been con­tentious in San Fran­cisco, where Airbnb has its head­quar­ters. Crit­ics charge that lu­cra­tive va­ca­tion ren­tals si-

phon off needed hous­ing, while Airbnb and its sup­port­ers say that the prac­tice helps reg­u­lar peo­ple make ends meet.

Set to take ef­fect July 27, the amend­ments to San Fran­cisco’s ex­ist­ing short-term-rental law would make companies like Airbnb, HomeAway/ VRBO and FlipKey li­able for big fines and crim­i­nal penal­ties if they show­case list­ings that lack the city’s re­quired reg­is­tra­tion num­ber. Only about 1,650 out of some 9,000 hosts have reg­is­tered with San Fran­cisco, de­spite a re­quire­ment that took ef­fect al­most 17 months ago.

The Board of Su­per­vi­sors unan­i­mously passed the amend­ments in June, mak­ing them im­per­vi­ous to a threat­ened veto by Mayor Ed Lee. The re­vi­sions, drafted by Su­per­vi­sors David Cam­pos and Aaron Pe­skin, pro­vide sev­eral op­tions for companies to com­ply as a way to help the changes with­stand le­gal chal­lenges. Host­ing sites can ei­ther en­ter reg­is­tra­tion num­bers in list­ings them­selves, check that hosts have en­tered the num­bers, or check with the city if list­ings are reg­is­tered. But Airbnb found ob­jec­tions to each of the law’s op­tions.

“Airbnb wants to play by their own set of rules,” Cam­pos said. “We’re talk­ing about very mod­est reg­u­la­tions, but if they’re will­ing to take this is­sue to court, it tells me they’re not in­ter­ested in any govern­ment in­volve­ment. What they want is to get their own way. No busi­ness in this coun­try has that lux­ury.”

Sec­tion 230 of 1996’s Com­mu­ni­ca­tions De­cency Act shields In­ter­net companies from li­a­bil­ity for con­tent posted by users on their web­sites. It cov­ers reviews on Yelp, posts on Face­book and Twit­ter, and clas­si­fied ads on a myr­iad of sites, among oth­ers. Airbnb ar­gued that its hosts are solely re­spon­si­ble for the con­tent they cre­ate and that the de­cency act pro­tects it from be­ing forced to ver­ify hosts’ in­for­ma­tion.

The Stored Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Act of 1986 cre­ates pri­vacy pro­tec­tions for com­mu­ni­ca­tions held by third-party In­ter­net ser­vice providers. Airbnb said the amend­ments vi­o­late this fed­eral law by re­quir­ing it to dis­close user in­for­ma­tion to the city with­out a sub­poena.

Airbnb also claimed the law vi­o­lates its First Amend­ment rights. “It is a con­tent-based restric­tion on ad­ver­tis­ing rental list­ings, which is speech,” the law­suit said. It also could suf­fer “ir­repara­ble” busi­ness harm “if it is forced to re­move im­me­di­ately thou­sands of list­ings from its web­site,” the le­gal fil­ings said.

Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for City At­tor­ney Den­nis Her­rera, re­but­ted Airbnb’s ar­gu­ments. The city’s reg­u­la­tions fol­low the same prin­ci­pal as re­quir­ing on­line ven­dors of al­co­hol and cig­a­rettes to ver­ify cus­tomers’ ages so they don’t sell to mi­nors, he said. “It’s sim­ply a duty to ver­ify in­for­ma­tion that’s al­ready re­quired of a reg­u­lated busi­ness ac­tiv­ity,” he said.

As for the de­cency act, “Noth­ing in San Fran­cisco’s or­di­nance pun­ishes host­ing plat­forms for their user con­tent,” Dorsey said. “It reg­u­lates busi­ness ac­tiv­ity of the host­ing plat­form it­self.”

The fed­eral court or­di­nar­ily hears cases 35 days af­ter fil­ing, which mean an Aug. 1 court date, six days af­ter the law is en­acted in San Fran­cisco. Airbnb is seek­ing an ac­cel­er­ated hear­ing.

Airbnb laid out al­ter­na­tives for how San Fran­cisco could amend its laws. It wants a on­estop, on­line process for host reg­is­tra­tion. Cur­rently hosts must first ob­tain a busi­ness li­cense, then sched­ule an in­per­son meet­ing to sub­mit doc­u­ments prov­ing they are per­ma­nent res­i­dents of the house they are turn­ing into a temporary rental.

Airbnb also wants hosts who rent out fewer than 14 nights a year to be ex­empt from reg­is­ter­ing, to cre­ate a grace pe­riod for new hosts to reg­is­ter, and to lift a re­quire­ment for busi­ness li­censes for Airbnb hosts. Fi­nally, it ob­jects to a new pol­icy from the city as­ses­sor that asked hosts to in­ven­tory all their fur­ni­ture and other items used for guests, so the city could levy a busi­ness prop­erty tax.

“We passed the law be­cause we thought it was a rea­son­able ap­proach to im­prove en­force­ment,” said Su­per­vi­sor Scott Wiener, who added a pro­vi­sion ask­ing city staff to im­prove the reg­is­tra­tion process.

San Fran­cisco has al­ready stream­lined reg­is­tra­tion, said Kevin Guy, direc­tor of the city’s Of­fice of Short Term Ren­tals. Busi­ness reg­is­tra­tions can now can be done on­line. Ap­point­ments for the re­quired in-per­son meet­ing with his of­fice can be booked on­line, and more-flex­i­ble times, such as evening hours, have been added.

“We’re try­ing to take away bar­ri­ers to ac­cess,” he said. “A fair num­ber of the folks who are not reg­is­tered knew they wouldn’t qual­ify” un­der laws that re­strict ren­tals to per­ma­nent res­i­dents, for in­stance.

Liz Hafalia / The Chron­i­cle

Kevin Guy, a San Fran­cisco city plan­ner, is direc­tor of the govern­ment’s of­fice of short-term ren­tals.

Liz Hafalia / The Chron­i­cle

Plan­ner tech­ni­cian Cindy Tong of the short-term ren­tals of­fice makes copies of doc­u­ments from a host reg­is­ter­ing a unit in San Fran­cisco.

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