Florida trial tests Airbnb’s protections under landmark 1996 tech law

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A trial set to begin Monday in a Florida lawsuit against Airbnb will test the extent of its protections under a landmark 1996 law that shields the operators of U.S. internet sites from legal liability for content posted by users.

Aimco — an apartment-rental company with sites in 17 states — claims in the action filed in state court in Miami-Dade County that Airbnb knowingly allowed hosts to offer Aimco properties despite its ban on short-term rentals. Aimco lost a similar suit in California after a federal judge agreed with Airbnb that it’s shielded by the 1996 law, known as the Communications Decency Act, which paved the way for the rise of businesses like Amazon, eBay and Craigslist and is fiercely protected by the technology industry.

“Airbnb hosts, not Airbnb, are responsible for providing the actual listing information,” the judge wrote in last year’s ruling, which Aimco is appealing.

“There’s a huge issue with the Communications Decency Act really shielding Airbnb and other short-term rental companies of any liability of actions that they knowingly and willfully cause,” Patti Shwayder, a senior vice president at Aimco, told the Washington Examiner.

Across the country, local governments are tightening regulations on homeowners who rent properties on sites like Airbnb. Washington, D.C., for example, recently passed a measure to prohibit owners from renting secondary properties for fewer than 30 days. Depending on the outcome, the Aimco suit could help several cities facing legal challenges from Airbnb over such statutes, Shwayder says.

Since 2013, some 57,000 Airbnb userse rented spots from long-term occupants of Aimco’s three Florida properties for short-term visits. After Airbnb ignored repeated requests from the firm to remove the listings, Aimco implemented a number of “very burdensome” measures to prevent recurrences, Shwayder said.

While Airbnb didn’t respond to an interview request for this article, its users are “reminded repeatedly that it is their responsibility to make sure that they comply with all relevant laws and potential third-party agreements,” the company said during an October hearing.

“They have to accept the Airbnb terms of service, which state that they need to comply with third-party agreements,” counsel Jonathan Blavin told the judge.

Aimco countered that Airbnb was aware users were illegally offering its properties as short-term rentals, at one point stating that the company’s head “is not buried in the sand about the harm being caused.”

In one instance, an individual asked Airbnb to remove some identifying information in a posting because he was risking eviction for violating his lease agreement, according to evidence submitted by Aimco. That user went on to rent out his property 234 additional times, despite breaching both Aimco’s prohibition on short-term rentals and Airbnb’s terms of service, the real estate company argued.

The lack of intervention, Aimco said, is due to Airbnb’s expansion plans targeting multi-unit properties.

“My instincts are that we need to invest far more into building a bridge with large-scale landlords,” Airbnb’s Nate Blecharczyk wrote in a 2017 email to co-founder Brian Chesky that noted half of homes “have landlords and, by default, subletting is not allowed.”

Aimco’s attorneys said the e-mail proved “the highest-ranking officers know that the short-term rentals business model is prohibited by nearly all rental property owners in this country.”

Blecharczyk also argued in a deposition that Airbnb has a duty to the people who offer lists on the site. “We can’t be seen as betraying 100 percent of our hosts in favor of landlords,” he said. “This is not tenable.”

Airbnb said Aimco cherry-picked evidence to bolster its case and pointed out that “three courts now have held that Airbnb’s practices are immune and lawful” under the 1996 law.

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