[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.