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Airbnb’s hidden cameras problem

Photo above: A hidden camera

A potential problem in managing short-term property rentals is owners who hide cameras to collect videos of naked customers to monetize in various ways.

You’d think the company that invented the business, and is now a large, industry-leading, cutting-edge short-term rental company, would’ve figured out by now how to deal with this issue.

Well, they have. Airbnb is dealing the problem the way unregulated companies typically do: Maximize profits, shuck responsibility, shield itself from liability, and hide the problem from public view so it doesn’t hurt business.

“A CNN investigation found that Airbnb consistently fails to protect its guests despite knowing hidden cameras are a persistent concern within its industry. Airbnb’s corporate strategies, moreover, have been aimed at preventing regulation of the short-term rental market to allow the company to distance itself from responsibility for guest safety and privacy.”

(Read story here.)

CNN added, “Thousands of images have been recovered from short-term rental hosts by law enforcement.” What is the company doing about it? They say “we take appropriate, swift action, which can include removing hosts and listings that violate the policy.” Can include? Not does include?

To clarify that, “CNN found that some of the policies touted by Airbnb come with significant disclaimers. The company’s website, for example, tells users they should not rely on its background checks to identify ‘all past criminal convictions or sex offender registrations … or other red flags.’” In other words, do your own background checks on hosts, because the company’s vetting may be cursory.

It gets worse. CNN says, “And even if Airbnb discovers a user has a criminal background, convictions of ‘murder, terrorism, rape or child molestation’ are not automatic disqualifiers under the company’s policy.” This sounds like a company whose policy is to not turn away business, not prioritize customer safety and welfare.

Here’s the problem: “Unlike hotels, Airbnb doesn’t control the properties it advertises or employ on-site staff such as security guards, receptionists or cleaning professionals. Instead, it leaves the costs of maintaining and protecting short-term rentals to hosts.” In other words, the guys hiding cameras are responsible for security and safety.

A hotel chain run like that would soon be out of business. Word would get around, guests would go elsewhere, and it would be sued into bankruptcy.

But Airbnb has figured out a way to dodge legal liability. CNN says “while hotels can be held legally responsible for guests harmed on their property, Airbnb frequently is not.” Airbnb fights lawsuits, “arguing it has little control over what happens at its listings.”

In tort law, you don’t have to own property to be responsible for what happens there. You can still be held liable for your own negligence. “Airbnb has known about the problem for at least a decade,” CNN says, and quotes a former employee saying “there were an abundance of cases coming in.”

In practice, this means Airbnb sometimes pays victims. But its standard rental agreement contains an arbitration clause, and the company keeps cases away from juries by settling them or forcing them into arbitration, where awards typically are lower. It also hides settlements from public view by requiring victims to sign confidentiality agreements as a part of their settlements, which effectively gags victims.

In legal proceedings, Airbnb has tried to muddy the waters about how many complaints it receives, refusing to be explicit about how many “tickets,” which average thousands per year, are actual cases of surreptitious recordings. Former employees are hesitant to say, because they had to sign non-disclosure agreements.

The problem isn’t restricted to Airbnb; CNN also mentions Vrbo as a company whose customers have been victimized.

This sounds like an industry with a crying need for more oversight. But Airbnb fights efforts to regulate it, including with lawsuits, because complying with rules is “bad for business.” It means turning away business.

Hidden cameras aren’t the only problem plaguing short-term rentals. There are issues involving people turning rentals into party houses, scammers pretending to be owners, and property damage risks and insurance issues. All good ideas aren’t always as good as they seem.

For both owners and renters, short-term rentals carry risks; and for booking companies like Airbnb, the name of the game is to make others shoulder those risks, and avoid the costs of risk mitigation as much as they can. Or, at least, so it seems based on what CNN’s investigation determined.

Given the current state of the industry, renters need to do their own background checks on owners, and do room sweeps for hidden recording devices, because it seems no one else is looking out for them.

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