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Consumer Watchdog Opposes San Francisco Home Sharing Law That Violates Privacy

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John M. Simpson

SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- Consumer Watchdog today said it opposes a proposed San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ ordinance that requires home sharing platforms like Airbnb to turn over massive amounts of personal information to the city, because it would violate consumers’ privacy and is little more than a “blank search warrant” for law enforcement authorities.

“The proposed ordinance is an unwarranted intrusion into users’ privacy and inappropriately requires the home sharing platform to do the enforcement work that should rightfully be done by the city,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director.

Speaking at a news conference outside City Hall, Simpson said the ordinance sponsored by Supervisors David Campos; Eric Mar and John Avalos, would require home sharing sites to turn over to local governments the address, number of nights rented, and amount paid to every host that rents their home through the site. Any government agency that has a person’s address in hand is going to be able to determine the person’s name as well.

“Government demands for the wholesale production of Internet users’ transactional and personal data is the central privacy question of our time. Throwing open the door to mass data collection  – with no legal justification, like the warrant currently required to demand such broad information from any private company – would be a serious blow to privacy rights in San Francisco,” said Simpson. “Requiring e-commerce sites to turn over personal data so enforcement officials can scour through records and search for potential violations of local laws amounts to a blank search warrant and a basic violation of our civil rights.”

Consumer Watchdog compared the Campos ordinance’s requirements on home sharing platforms with the obligations of other businesses. The group noted that hotels are not compelled by state law to turn over to municipalities the guest register of every guest at every hotel, motel or inn and how much they paid. Amazon and eBay are not required to turn over to cities lists of the goods and services they sold, the prices charged and who offered them, Consumer Watchdog said.

“This overreach would be like requiring automakers to install a device on every vehicle that would send a message to police when a car went faster than the speed limit,” said Simpson.

It’s hard to think of a corporation ever being required to turn over massive amounts of personal identifiable information of citizens’ commercial transaction to a local government entity, Consumer Watchdog said.  Usually each request for a specific piece of personally identifiable data is typically seen through the lens of a specific instance where the right to privacy is carefully balanced against the right to safety and security for the public at large. Judicial officers typically need to issue warrants for such information because it is considered each citizen’s right to protect it, Consumer Watchdog noted.

Consumer Watchdog said it does not object to requiring people offering home sharing accommodations to get a business license and to pay occupancy taxes to the city, nor does it object to the city establishing its zoning restrictions.

“People using home sharing sites to offer accommodations should follow zoning laws and pay their taxes,” said Simpson.  “However, the blunt approach to enforcement contemplated by the Campos ordinance is a slippery slope and a significant threat to privacy.”

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