Late last fall we posted about Attorney General Schneiderman’s troubling attempts to subpoena data on 15,000 New York City-based users of Airbnb, the service best known for allowing people to rent out their spare bedrooms or their homes while on vacation. Schneiderman was trying to find landlords who were renting their apartments out long-term through Airbnb as makeshift hotels, while failing to pay the requisite hotel taxes. While recognizing the city’s compelling need to find tax scofflaws, FPF was critical of Schneiderman’s approach, as it required Airbnb to reveal the vacation habits of thousands of New Yorkers (even ones not suspected of any wrongdoing), including residents’ names and contact information, dates of guest stays, rates charged, and any communications between users and Airbnb about tax issues.
We are happy to report that State Supreme Court Judge Gerald Connolly ruled in Airbnb’s favor, generally siding with the company’s argument that the subpoena was overly broad. Although Judge Connolly’s opinion implies that a narrower subpoena of Airbnb’s records is likely to be upheld, the judge wrote that the subpoena “as drafted, seeks materials that are irrelevant to the inquiry at hand and accordingly, must be quashed.” Specifically, judge Connolly criticized the subpoena because it included information on residents outside of New York City, as well as rentals of fewer than 14 days (which are legal under New York Law).
Although no one should not be able to avoid the law simply by doing business online, overly broad subpoenas for innocent customer information harm consumer trust, which in turn cripples online business as well as individual freedom. We applaud Judge Connolly for correctly identifying the overbreadth problem with Schneiderman’s subpoena, and we expect that a more balanced request will follow.