Opinion: TAO urges Portland City Council to proceed with caution on short-term rental regulations

[Editor: The following is an opinion from the Technology Association of Oregon. Full disclosure, I am on the board of the TAO.]

This Wednesday, the Portland City Council will consider new proposals to enforce short-term rental regulations. It is critical that Commissioners take the time to carefully weigh and address legitimate individual privacy interests involved with the City’s desire to expand its enforcement authority.

Over the past year, Portland leaders worked thoughtfully to develop an Ordinance to regulate short-term rentals in a way that strengthens the region’s innovation industries and creates opportunities for economic growth. Without giving this new Code time to work, the City Council is already considering amendments that would undermine the original Ordinance and raise serious concerns about internet privacy.

One proposal, offered by Commissioner Fish, requires any Web site where short term rentals are merely advertised to hand over user data at the request of the Revenue Bureau, without a subpoena or legal due process. This data includes physical addresses of hosts within Portland, including any and all related contact information of individuals associated with or acting as hosts.

Protecting personal user data is fundamental to the success and growth of the internet and people’s continued willingness to use online services. A fundamental principle of a free and open internet is that government and law enforcement should provide sufficient legal justification before obtaining the personal data of online users from third-party websites where they transact business.

The Revenue Bureau claims they will use this power sparingly, but privacy advocates should be wary, and it simply sets a bad privacy precedent. With numerous, less-intrusive alternatives available for enforcement, this broad expansion of authority seems unwise given the potential for harm to internet users’ legitimate expectation of privacy.

Another key issue is the City’s attempt to push land use enforcement onto internet platforms. Federal policy weighs heavily against state and local regulation of internet platforms because of the potential to disrupt online activity with a web of confusing local rules. This proposal would require websites from Craigslist to Airbnb—event The Oregonian newspaper’s own classified page—to verify and police short-term rentals advertised on their site, or face hefty fines and penalties.

A simple alternative is for the City to enforce short-term rental rules through their existing, compliance-driven process. It sets a dangerous precedent for government to shift regulatory responsibility to third-party websites which provide information and services nationwide. Internet platforms like eBay, Airbnb, or Craigslist should not be responsible for policing the activity of citizens in individual cities. Shifting responsibility in this fashion would place an insurmountable burden on private companies.

Portland is widely respected for balancing new innovations with traditional quality of life. Visitors and employers are flocking to Portland to experience our unique way of living. The City Council should take more time to study this proposal and be thoughtful about unintended consequences, as well as less-invasive alternatives. Let’s not turn the clock back in Portland.

The Technology Association of Oregon is a technology trade association that represents the interests of the region’s leading technology and tech-enabled companies.

  1. Just to clarify, this is an opinion piece from TAO.

  2. Thanks for the piece, Rick. I’m skeptical about the position you take, though.

    > A fundamental principle … is that government and law enforcement should provide sufficient legal justification before obtaining the personal data of online users from third-party websites where they transact business.

    Yes. But a competing fundamental principle is that we require accountability of those who conduct business with the public. *Especially* those in the hospitality industry, which in the past has proven itself to require extra oversight.

    We can see this principle in action on the Secretary of State’s business search site. We require businesses to publicly declare a physical address and name of a real person. The point? You’ve got to know whom to sue, when it comes to that. But the business search (and registered agent info) is extremely handy for less hardcore remedies. As an attorney I use the site at least once per week to quickly cut through to the heart of a matter by finding the person responsible.

    The trick, then, is balancing these two competing principles. On paper, it’s not unreasonable to contact info for service providers.

    A few months ago, a client of mine was badly harassed by an Airbnb host in another state. Their options for recourse are limited.

  3. I don’t understand why TAO considers this a privacy issue. These hosters are required to get a permit from the city — so if a hoster is following the law, then the city already has this information. What private information is the law-abiding hoster giving up to the city that the city does not already have?

    “It sets a dangerous precedent for government to shift regulatory responsibility to third-party websites”

    That’s also ridiculous – they just want companies like AirBNB to provide a list of short term rentals within the city. This information is trivial for a company like AirBNB to generate. Isn’t that AirBNB’s primary business already — to provide a list of short term rentals within a specific geographic area??

    “A simple alternative is for the City to enforce short-term rental rules through their existing, compliance-driven process.”

    The current process is simply to wait for the phone to ring when a neighbor (or a guest) complains. Because of this, most short term rentals are not bothering to get a permit, which is precisely what the city is trying to fix. There is no simple mechanism for the city to determine who is currently operating a short term rental.

    Or if you think there is a simple mechanism, then by all means – produce that list and send it to the city. I’m sure they’d be happy to have that information.

  4. Rick, I thought you were talking about commercial real estate (and trying to figure out why TAO would bother to get involved) until I got to the word “hosts” in paragraph three. “Short-term rentals” could mean a lot of different things. 🙂

  5. Good catch, Rick. It appears these amendments are being developed to circumvent existing law. This makes no sense and probably could dump any action taken using the amendments into a costly legal mess. One hopes the City Council receives solid advice before implementing any amendments.

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