New Yorkers rented out their rooms for extra cash, shady real estate agencies built illegal hotel empires, neighbors got sick of the noise, Airbnb got rich. State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a subpoena, and both sides cut a deal [PDF]: Airbnb would give the AG anonymized data on their New York listings for 12 months. We asked for that data under the state's Freedom of Information Law so we could see which neighborhoods and specific buildings were being used by Airbnb the most, and were denied.
Initially we were told the AG's office didn't have the data yet. Then we were told, without elaboration, that giving us the data would "interfere with law-enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings."
In a denial of our appeal, Kathryn Sheingold, the AG's Records Appeals Officer, writes:
The records include a list of buildings and the amount of short-term rental activity in that building; disclosure of this information would interfere with present and future investigations into the building and the short-term renters in the building by providing targets with information that would allow them to avoid detection and to alter or destroy evidence. Additionally, disclosure of the anonymized data would interfere with the current investigation by affecting Airbnb's willingness to comply with its continuing reporting obligations.
This justification is lame.
Not only does this data exclude unit numbers and all identifying information whatsoever, who is to say that any of these listings are illegal? Airbnb hosts are allowed to rent out their apartments under state law for any number of days provided they also reside in the apartment during the duration of the stay. While the AG's office has estimated that two-thirds of Airbnb's listings are illegal, this anonymous data is just that: Data.
Data that happens to be partially available right now on Airbnb.com. Data that the company told its hosts in New York would be available for the attorney general to peruse.
Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, also received a copy of the AG's denial, per state law.
"I think it's inconsistent with the law," Freeman says of the AG's decision. "Under the circumstances, how would disclosure of anonymized data hamper the ability of the attorney general's office to do their job? How could it interfere?"
Freeman, who was honored last month by the Society of Professional Journalists for his work at the state agency, added, "And if people clean up their act as a result of publication, isn't that what they want?"
We asked Airbnb to provide us with the data and have not yet received a response. If you're an attorney who would like to help us sue Schneiderman's office for the data, please drop us a line. To quote Schneiderman himself, "Transparency reduces the likelihood of corruption."