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Airbnb wins B.C. privacy ruling, court quashes order to release host data

Vancouver housing activist sued to get information about the hosts of short-term rentals
The downtown Vancouver skyline is seen in an aerial view from east Vancouver, on Saturday, April 9, 2022. Airbnb has won a court ruling that quashes an order from British Columbia’s privacy commissioner that would have identified hosts and their home addresses in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Vancouver housing activist Rohana Rezel has had a beef with Airbnb and the City of Vancouver for years, and a B.C. Supreme Court ruling this week means there’s no end in sight.

Rezel had made Freedom of Information requests to the city in 2019, seeking information about the hosts of short-term rentals. But the city and the company resisted, saying it could harm property owners, and make them susceptible to violence and even stalking.

British Columbia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner agreed in part, but ordered the city to release information to Rezel including “licence numbers of individuals on the Airbnb platform, home addresses of all hosts in the City; and the licence numbers associated with those addresses.”

Airbnb objected to the city releasing the information and sought a judicial review in B.C. Supreme Court last year.

This week, Justice Jasvinder Basran sided with the company, ordering the privacy commissioner to reconsider its decision, and notify hosts whose information is at stake.

For Rezel, Airbnb hosts in Vancouver are “a select group of people to run a business in such secrecy.”

He said he wanted to uncover information about short-term rentals because people should be able to know if they’ve been evicted to make way for an Airbnb, and they should know if they’re living next to one.

“I’ve been helping a lot of people who’ve been evicted to make way for Airbnb and a lot of the times people don’t even know that the reason that they have been evicted is because of Airbnb,” Rezel said in an interview on Thursday.

“People suspect that, but they have no way of knowing that for sure and they would come to me and (have) to use indirect means to figure that out.”

Rezel said the City of Vancouver’s reluctance to release information about hosts and their short-term rentals makes it difficult to prove a wrongful eviction.

“Now imagine if this data was publicly available,” he said. “Then if you get an eviction notice, three months later you can look this up and you can see well, they evicted me, but then they applied for a license.”

Airbnb this week won its case to have Rezel’s request reconsidered, but the activist had no involvement in the case, identified only as a “John Doe Requester.”

He said the company had sought costs involved in the judicial review, which he wouldn’t have been able to cover if he’d participated.

An affidavit submitted to the privacy commissioner by the city had described social media posts that were “obscene, aggressive, and threatening” toward operators of short-term rentals, to demonstrate the potential harm from releasing the information.

The judge’s decision says the privacy commissioner wrongly classified home addresses as business information rather than personal information since Airbnb hosts run home-based businesses in their principal residences.

The privacy commissioner’s finding that licence numbers “are personal information, but principal residence addresses are not, is confounding,” Basran wrote.

“The latter has a much closer connection to the personal lives and details of the hosts. (Short-term rental licence) numbers, hosts’ principal residence addresses, and the acknowledged ability of anyone to find the names of individual hosts, in and of itself, constitutes the disclosure of a wide range of personal information,” the ruling states. “Taken cumulatively, it would enable the discovery of a treasure trove of personal information.”

Rezel said he was disappointed by the ruling, which means he’ll have to wait even longer to see if he can access information about short-term rentals in Vancouver in the midst of a housing crisis.

“I firmly believe that you can’t have one set of businesses that are playing by the rules and then another set of businesses that are able to operate in secrecy,” he said. “It’s almost as if it’s a two-tier system.”

Airbnb did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the court ruling.

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