It has been a very rough year for Silicon Valley’s wizards of smart, who have seen their cachet with the American people plummet in the face of politically motivated censorship, sermonizing arrogance, and deep-seated hypocrisy. But if any company has had a worse few weeks than the sharing giant Airbnb just did, I would seriously consider eating my “Make America Great Again” hat in shock.
I say this because in the past few weeks, two crisis level stories have emerged about Airbnb, neither of which the giant seems to have yet resolved.
First there was a report from the Daily Beast that Airbnb has become a favorite place for scammers to launder money, particularly for Russian criminals who have even gone so far as to seek accomplices out in online forums. As to how such schemes actually work, the simplicity would be elegant if it weren’t so sleazy: all the criminal has to do is find a willing accomplice ready to put up a dummy Airbnb listing, which the criminal then “books” with their ill-gotten money. Once the “booking” is over, the host will send back a percentage of the profits to their fake “guest,” who will have thus transformed stolen money into completely legal tender. Presto, change-o, bingo.
What makes this story so awful for Airbnb is that it’s an abuse to which a comparatively unregulated home-sharing giant would be most vulnerable. One can’t exactly launder money through Uber rides, for example, seeing as the fares are usually too small to be significant, and the driver does actually have to travel from point A to point B. But a basement room, or spare bedroom, or even a vacant apartment sitting empty for days on end while the host collects hotel-sized fares for every night? Who’s to say the difference between an absentee tenant and a money launderer in that situation? Granted, small, independent hotels could also be used for this sort of thing, but compared with the availability of Airbnb listings, such hotels were and are vanishingly rare. Finding a dirty hotel owner is absolutely easy compared with the needle-in-a-haystack problem of spotting a dirty Airbnb host in the ocean of clean ones. And, of course, hotel owners actually get scrutiny from tax collectors, unlike Airbnb, which treats even its hosts’ tax obligations as perfunctory.
And that’s not even touching on the way in which this story has become a political headache for the company. Normally, the Left has carried water for companies like Airbnb due to their militant anti-Trump stance. But in view of the fact that this very scheme may have been used by embattled former campaign manager Paul Manafort, that tolerance appears to be less-than-forthcoming. All the saccharine pro-illegal immigration Super Bowl ads in the world can’t make up for complicity with Trump people in the minds of the so-called #Resistance, after all.
And that’s just what one story has done to the company. This week, yet another bad bit of press hit, as stories emerged showing a pattern of hosts using cameras to spy on their tenants. For what purposes, we can only speculate in increasingly dark ways, but where this becomes really problematic for Airbnb is that they have treated consumers with complaints about this happening as if they are merely trying to get out of paying their fare. It has taken Twitter-driven outrage to force action, because in Silicon Valley, the one thing that is guaranteed to make companies squeal is mean words said about them on Twitter. What a shame for Airbnb that the remedy for this bad story also appears completely elusive, largely because Airbnb doesn’t actually own or control the property it purports to rent.
All of this raises a highly uncomfortable question about home sharing companies like Airbnb, however: namely, if home-sharing is this uniquely vulnerable to sleazy, criminal abuses, is home-sharing really ready to exist as an industry? Is Airbnb’s business model simply too vulnerable to exploitation by criminals to leave unregulated? There are ready, and very arguably correct, answers one could give to both questions, but at minimum, the company owes the American people an explanation for its ability, knowing or otherwise, to throw open the doors to evil.