Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, has issued a subpoena to Airbnb to request data on all users in New York who have ever used the popular Internet service to rent their homes.  Airbnb lets users browse rooms for rent, while allowing prospective renters to provide a lower-cost, reasonably trustworthy alternative to hotels and Craigslist.   Technically, the AG is looking for residents who may be sidestepping New York rental laws by taking their apartments off the market and subletting them full time, but the broad scope of the subpoena puts any Airbnb customer at risk for investigation and harassment.

The state is demanding that Airbnb prepare a spreadsheet that will allow the police to cross reference a host’s name and address with every guest they’ve hosted, the length of stay, the going rent and the total revenue earned through Airbnb at that address.  The government is not making any attempt to filter suspicious renters from benign ones; there are no renters specifically under suspicion, or they would be targeted individually by warrant.  The Internet Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy & Technology have filed friend of the court briefs to support Airbnb in its fight against New York’s lawsuit.

This kind of fishing subpoena creates a chilling effect for online businesses.  Because their user data is stored in easy-to-search, digital databases, it is a more tempting target for law enforcement than older-school businesses that might still keep customer information in file cabinets.  But treating online businesses as a treasure trove of possibly incriminating information puts them at a severe disadvantage in the marketplace.

How many people would use a GPS unit in their car if your position were routinely reported to law enforcement, so they could estimate whether you were speeding and mail you a ticket without the burden of spotting and stopping you?  Who would use mobile payment services to split a check with friends if the pattern of payments were routinely filtered for anomalies?

Even a low rate of false positives and misguided prosecutions may be enough to scare away law-abiding customers.  The small conveniences of Airbnb and other online services don’t outweigh the risk of being put in a pipeline to possibly misguided prosecution.

With one subpoena, the New York Attorney General’s Office can inhibit consumers and entrepreneurs from taking advantage of the efficiencies of an online age.  The courts mustn’t allow them to deputize business owners as beat cops to police their own customers.

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