Since 2016, Airbnb has sued more than a half dozen US cities and other government agencies over local ordinances regulating the short-term-rental industry and holding companies liable for ensuring the rentals comply with the law. It’s become so common that many local government officials in popular tourist destinations looking to crack down on illicit short-term rentals have grown to expect it.
Recent actions signal things might be changing. Airbnb settled its lawsuit with the city of Boston on Thursday in a surprising about face, agreeing to turn over twice-monthly user data reports to the city, proactively police listings (or face a per-unit penalty), and even audit its own enforcement efforts. The settlement followed nearly a year of allegations, injunctions, and appeals in objection to those very requirements.
Airbnb sued Boston in federal court in November, a few months after the city enacted an ordinance aimed at discouraging hosts from transforming homes and apartments into de facto hotels. The ordinance required that hosts register with the city, restricted short-term rentals to properties where the owner is present, and required short-term rental platforms like Airbnb to remove illegal listings and share information with local officials for enforcement purposes.
It was the latter two provisions that Airbnb objected to, alleging the requirements were both unconstitutional and technologically infeasible. The company has similar arguments in other lawsuits, including against Miami, and Palm Beach, Florida. But the provisions of Thursday’s settlement are largely similar to those in the city’s June 2018 ordinance.
“Most importantly, this shows that cities do have the authority to impose platform liability for booking those listings,” Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu told WIRED. “Other cities will certainly be affected.”
It’s one of many recent moves that suggest the company is moving to put some of its litigation behind it. Airbnb settled its lawsuit against Miami on August 1, agreeing to comply with city rules requiring it to purge any illegal listings, be subject to fines for failing to follow the ordinance’s stipulations, and pay the city $380,000. (The city says this lump sum payment is to cover its legal fees from Airbnb’s “frivolous” lawsuit. Airbnb says the payment’s purpose is open-ended.)
In May, Airbnb agreed to turn over data in response to subpoena requests from New York City officials, including partially anonymized host and reservation data on more than 17,000 listings, after years of hostilities (and multiple ongoing lawsuits).
Still, details from Airbnb’s Boston settlement suggest the company is particularly concerned with how playing nice (or, at least, less aggressively) will affect its bottom line, especially in a market that is only growing more saturated with competitors.
The settlement agreement includes multiple provisions aimed at ensuring so-called “fairness across platforms,” which give Airbnb the power to ensure that the city is regulating its competitors—like Expedia, which owns HomeAway and VRBO; Booking Holdings; and TripAdvisor—as aggressively as Airbnb. The agreement requires that the city begin negotiating similar agreements with Airbnb’s competitors “immediately,” and that it give Airbnb a copy of any agreement it enters into with one of its rivals so Airbnb can contest any provisions that it finds unfair.
“We are proud that we have forged this comprehensive solution with the city and look forward to working with our community to make them aware of their role within this new framework,” said Airbnb’s northeast press secretary Liz DeBold Fusco.