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December 9 2016

Airbnb Can’t Beat ‘Em, So Now They’re Lobbying ‘Em

Patrice L. Onwuka

Airbnb has done an about-face – abandoning its defiant stand to adopt a more accommodating strategy.

When Airbnb was just a small community of couch surfers, no one noticed or cared about short-term rentals, but now that the home sharing company is a multi-billion giant challenging the hotel industry, it’s become the target for lawmakers wary of innovation.

Up until now, Airbnb fought added regulations and efforts to criminalize their operations. Like Uber and other companies in the rising sharing economy, they held that they are a tech platform which users employ for their transportation and travel needs and should be treated as such by the law.

However, Airbnb has yanked down their war flag and is now waving a white flag. Instead of continuing to fight major cities, Airbnb has changed its strategy to embrace government regulations.

Airbnb just released a set of policy recommendations and concessions for state and local governments to regulate home sharing. The 39-page Policy Tool Chest includes policies on collecting taxes on travelers, capping the number of nights hosts can list their properties, being good neighbors, and addressing privacy issues. The rules can apply differently in different places as a plug-in-play strategy.

Where no regulation exists, Airbnb hopes to provide a framework that lawmakers can use and where there is something, these rules can be used to update them.

CNET reports on comments of government relations head and Clinton Administration alumnus Chris Lehane:

"We're going from the horse and buggy to the car," Chris Lehane, Airbnb's head of global policy, said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. "I would look at where we are right now... as a real pivot moment for Airbnb."

"We've realized we need to be partners with cities," Lehane said during Wednesday's conference call.

The Policy Tool Chest is an extension of Airbnb's recent concessions. Lehane called it "a living, breathing, organic document" that can be added to or changed over time. The tool breaks down into four specific policy compartments in which Airbnb said it can work with cities: tax collection, neighborly conduct, accountability and transparency and privacy.

This move is not too surprising. Airbnb recently dropped its case against New York City (and New York State) and has been negotiating with cities overseas as well.

The biggest example of its shift in strategy can be found down in the Bayou. The New York Times explains how Airbnb’s negotiations with New Orleans that began last year serve as a model for how they will work with cities going forward:

New Orleans officials said they sensed that the bruising global confrontations might make the online room-rental company more willing to compromise than in the past. So as both sides worked together to reach a deal to legalize short-term rentals in the city of 390,000, New Orleans gained concessions from Airbnb that few other towns have received. The new rules, which include provisions for data sharing and registering hosts, were passed by the New Orleans City Council last week.

“Airbnb recognized that it would have to change the way they were interacting with cities and change the way things were going for them across the country,” said Ryan Berni, a deputy mayor of New Orleans, who negotiated the regulations with Airbnb.

Perhaps Airbnb sees this as the way to get government out of their way, but how different is this from what traditional companies and industries do?

The disruption of innovation over the past decade has challenged how things get done by giving people a voice against cronyism in government. However, if tech companies are simply following the old playbook to secure protections for themselves are they any better than their predecessors? Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. Tech companies like Airbnb have started to staff up with former Obama and Clinton Administration staff who will undoubtedly see more government as the solution.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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