Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Airbnb’s program to reveal gun-buyer information at risk of legal trouble

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There was a report last week that Airbnb found itself in an odd predicament.

The home-sharing company said it had provided the Security Information Sharing Act (SISA) grant that set off the gun alarm in the TechCrunch story. This grants immunity from civil or criminal liability to the companies that can provide information on potential would-be lawbreakers. Airbnb could have included its report with a previous grant, signed in March, that required recipients to not engage in unfair trade practices.

But as the spotlight grew brighter, it also grew troublesome for the company. The White House said that if the grant was a federal one, it was supposed to have been made by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and not the Commerce Department. (Airbnb also criticized the Treasury for not disclosing that its grant violated the Treasury’s “three years” rule.) The IRS was taking umbrage, too.

One was quick to read the report as a bit of a disconnect. After all, the two department memos were subject to the same confidentiality standard—there is nothing special in their wording about company protocols regarding such information sharing. The letters were reproduced a close read anyway. It wasn’t until I interviewed the Treasury spokesperson that I got a hold of the details. The FAA grant was the one that actually required full disclosure.

The FAA grant, signed in September, states that recipients are required to share information that “is being transmitted or made available by the [FAA] database to any other government entity, in a manner in which the United States government is the entity, to the extent such a request under the [FAA] Information Disclosure Reform Act [ICER] may require such information.” The language is clear: The FAA will require the company to comply if requested for its potential to help enforce federal laws.

The FAA grant does specifically note that the information “will not be used by any government entity for immigration enforcement purposes.” That clarifies it to be a federal grant, and the Security Information Sharing Act requirement.

Although full clarity is not my goal, the FAA grant rules do offer a substantive opportunity for Airbnb to discuss its blanket reporting with competitors—something one might expect from a publicly traded company.

It may also catch the eye of the Justice Department, which has subpoenaed Airbnb’s Federal Aviation Administration grant as part of its investigation into the killing of an Arizona man in January.

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