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Airbnb is Disruptive, But Is It Getting "Creepy" Now, Too?

BY Sam Roudman | Monday, June 3 2013

Airbnb, already under fire from regulators and the hotel industry its business model is shaking up, might be in for some flak from its own customers, too.

Airbnb is a quintessential industry disruptor. By allowing people worldwide to list and book their own apartments for short term rentals, the company effectively undercut the hotel industry. Since its launch in 2008, the platform’s use has exploded, and the company is now dealing with growing pains as its transitions from insurgent to institution. Those pains include a dispute over $1.8 million in transient occupancy taxes in its home city of San Francisco, and despite helping to house displaced New Yorkers after Hurricane Sandy, a recent New York ruling against one Airbnb renter — based on a 2011 law that prohibits renting apartments to guests for less than 29 days — that has other Airbnb hosts worried they might be next. The regulatory headbutting stemming from Airbnb’s endaround of the hotel industry’s supremacy (and the regulations which govern it) is not so different from that faced by transportation disruptors like Uber.

But now some Airbnb users say the company is not only disrupting an industry, but also their privacy. The point of contention is a new user verification program called Verified ID. According to Airbnb:

Verified ID provides a connection between the online and offline spaces. Airbnb users can earn a 'Verified ID' badge on their profile by providing their online identity (via existing Airbnb reviews, LinkedIn, or Facebook) and matching it to offline ID documentation, such as confirming personal information or scanning a photo ID. The name provided by both channels must match for verification to succeed ...

Airbnb will require a random 25% of users in the USA to go through the Verified ID process. Soon, we’ll expand this requirement to users around the world. We hope that hosts and guests worldwide will see the benefits of interacting with users who complete Verified ID. Our goal is for all Airbnb members to have Verified ID eventually.

Verification! Validation! These sound like great and necessary things for a business predicated on strangers engaging in a financial transaction to enter and stay in each other’s apartments. But according to comments from angry Airbnb users compiled by Doc Searls, an internet scholar and author of The Intention Economy, the new requirements leave much to be desired:

"Banks lose customer data all the time and they have some of the most stringent standards possible. Despite that, you pretend that you all are immune. You claim that having people send some of their most personal information over the internet will make them safer. You don’t make them safer; you make them MUCH LESS SAFE."

"There is just no way I’m linking up my Facebook account so you can datamine my friends, keep an eye on my day to day activity, or examine my relationships. There are enough safetychecks on me through the relationship we’ve already developed. Please reconsider this stupidity."

"This is ABSURD. If they want to offer this, then fine. But let the users decide how much they’re sharing and let hosts decide what they need."

If you don't happen to be able to verify through LinkedIn or Facebook, your privacy takes a hit elsewhere. Doc Searls' wife found that out when she emailed Airbnb telling them that she didn’t have a Facebook or LinkedIn account. Airbnb's response:

"If you’re unable to verify your online ID using Facebook or LinkedIn, or if your account does not automatically satisfy the online ID requirements, you can create a video profile to serve as an alternative.
Your video will be visible on your profile as a live introduction of yourself to other Airbnb community members."

Searls thinks video verification is a decidedly nonstandard practice.

"Requiring that a current or prospective customer login with Facebook or Linkedin, and then submit a video of themselves if those options aren't available, is not only far outside the norms of ID verification, but excludes a great many perfectly good customers," he says. A commenter on Airbnb was more succinct, calling the policy "creepy."

In response to questions about these criticisms of its policy, an Airbnb spokesman referred to a post on Airbnb's Nerd Blog by engineer Naseem Hakim.

"Things could have been explained better, and we’ll do a better job explaining why we ask for certain information going forward," says Hakim in the post. "We believe that reducing anonymity will ultimately create better Airbnb experiences. But we also acknowledge that the product is not finished — it needs improvement."

He goes on to apologize for bugs in the system, which mistakenly asked for the enhanced ID measures from some longtime users with many reviews (like Joyce Searls). He calls the video profiles a "temporary, stopgap solution," and says Airbnb plans on allowing users to keep their video profiles private, accessible only to Airbnb's verification staff.

The uproar highlights the challenges newly giant tech companies face as they try to secure and stabilize their newfound success while completing the overthrow of entrenched competitors. A commenter on Ycombinator sums up Airbnb's conundrum as such:

"Airbnb's concept, however wonderful it may be when it does work, is full of practical and legal holes which are now beginning to emerge. The big question is: can Airbnb close those holes without significantly reducing the usefulness of their service?"

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