Expedia, TripAdvisor Tighten Safety Rules for Vacation Rentals

Expedia Group Inc.’s short-term rental business Vrbo has banned hosts who use its platform from leaving house keys in public places, and TripAdvisor Inc. is reviewing its safety policies to better protect travelers.

The two companies said the moves were prompted by a recent Bloomberg Businessweek investigation into violent crimes at Airbnb Inc. listings. That story reported on the alleged rape at knife point of a 29-year-old Australian tourist in an Airbnb rental near Times Square on New Year’s Eve in 2015. The woman had picked up the keys to the apartment at a nearby bodega without having to provide identification, and somehow her attacker had obtained a duplicate set of keys and was waiting for her when she returned.

Expedia’s new policy, adopted last week, bars hosts from leaving keys in public places “where the owner, property manager or staff is not present.” TripAdvisor is also working to update its rules about how keys are transferred to guests, according to Brian Hoyt, a company spokesman. “Beyond that change, we are committing to a larger review of our policies to further protect travelers booking vacation rentals on our platform,” he said.

Ben Breit, a spokesman for Airbnb, said the company tightened its rules in 2019 to ensure that key exchanges are made securely. The policy doesn’t provide specifics. “We are always working to strengthen our community policies and enforcement procedures and regularly review them as we work to do all we can for our community,” Breit said.

Several lawmakers say more needs to be done and have called for changes in a federal law that shields internet companies from liability for content published on their platforms. Liz Krueger, a New York state senator who represents Manhattan’s Midtown and East Side neighborhoods, said Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act gives rental companies such as Airbnb and Vrbo too much protection.

Users have “no guarantees and no real protections” in a short-term rental arrangement, and that means the public safety of residents and tourists is being put at risk, Krueger said. “I can set rules on a hotel, but I can’t set the same rules on Airbnb sites in my city. It’s infuriating to be trapped in a situation where you want to prevent bad things from happening, but your hands are tied because of a federal law that says computer-based businesses are hands-off for local governments to regulate.”

Home-rental companies such as Airbnb have argued in court with mixed results that local regulations restricting short-term rentals don’t apply to them, citing Section 230. The question of what role the law would play when it comes to enforcing safety policies on the platforms has never been tested in court, partly because Airbnb’s terms of service agreement forces user disputes into confidential arbitration. The few safety-related cases that have made it to the courts have been settled before trial.

“Section 230 creates a lot more uncertainty for state regulators trying to place safety regulations on a platform like Airbnb,” said Jeff Kosseff, an assistant professor of cybersecurity at the U.S. Naval Academy who has written a book about Section 230. “If I were a state legislator who were drafting a bill to impose safety requirements on Airbnb, then Section 230 would be front and center.”

Earlier this year, Democratic Senators Mark Warner, Mazie Hirono and Amy Klobuchar introduced a bill to limit Section 230 so it couldn’t be used to shield tech platforms from alleged violations of federal or state laws or civil actions regarding a wrongful death. “This is yet another example -- among the many, in other areas where consumers and vulnerable Americans are being harmed –- where Section 230 has served as a barrier to justice, and a get-out-of-jail-free card for large platforms whose business models too often are predicated on externalizing risks to others,” Warner said in a written statement referring to the Bloomberg story.

Airbnb’s Breit disputed that interpretation of the law. “Over the last decade, cities across the U.S. have included specific safety rules as part of broader hosts’ home-sharing regulations and have done so without complication from Section 230 of the CDA,” he said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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