Uber attracts controversy over people with disabilities; Airbnb wants hosts to provide hotel-like reliability

Here’s an interesting story. If a company’s services or products are based on the sharing, grass-roots economy, does it still have to bend over backwards to accommodate all possible customers, especially people with disabilities.

The Washington Post has a Metro section front page story in the Washington Post today by Faiz Siddiqui, “Groups sue Uber for excluding wheelchair users from its basic door-to-door service“.

The fact pattern may seem a little muddy. In Washington DC, Uber’s biggest offense seems to be that it would not allow a driver whose car allowed non-fold-up wheel chairs to be loaded – that means, a rather large vehicle. It is hard to understand why the company would do this, unless it doesn’t want the complications of dealing with special-needs customers. But the company does route such customers to a somewhat inconvenient and alternate taxi service. The company does not require drivers to be so equipped (the logical converse of what it actually did).

Now, I do have some reservations about using the sharing economy a lot. For one thing, I don’t personally want an “online reputation” as a consumer. I have to admit, Uber reliability has been very good. It saved me with a prepaid movie ticket one day when Metro broke down. I haven’t used Airbnb, and I’ve read about pressures from Airbnb on its hosts to behave more like “hotels” so that consumers know they have a clean and equipped room when they need it, with no questions asked. I’ve also read about issues of discrimination by hosts.

I understand that the sharing economy is controversial. It can encourage people to consumer less, which sounds good for sustainability. But it can also undermine the autonomy and privacy a lot of adults are used to. It can involve taking more personal risks than many providers (drivers or hosts) and possibly consumers could be accustomed to. For example, in previous posts I’ve covered (sometimes personal) risks associated with providing Internet router access.

And when people provide services as independent contractors with their own cars or homes, they may often expect more personal say in whom they serve or how they do it. That cuts across ideas we have in “public accommodations” law regarding discrimination against certain customers. In some specialized small businesses (like the wedding cake business), we see similar expectations by some small business owners, to be left alone, when dealing with consumers whom they perceive as presenting them with personal or religious challenges.

I sometimes have to ponder this in my own book authoring “business”, especially as I contemplate putting out a novel (finally) within the next year. I get pressure from my POD publishers to buy volumes of printed books at deep discounts and set up my own retailing (which I do have a formal shell for) rather than depend on the passive (but reasonably effective) system of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, search engines, and word of mouth (and social media really is effective on that point). Imagine if I was viewed as a public accommodation (albeit a small business) and had to provide braille, large print, and audio as well   I don’t have the commercial scale for that, even though I seem to have some political visibility in the policy areas (as I did with the DADT repeal), even today with (for better or worse) the Trump administration.   I may be getting beyond the scope of this post, but my mission is to encourage critical thinking and connect the dots, not to placate understandably needful consumers in various identity groups (who could possible provide volume sales for those writers who will sell to their specific needs) . I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford to do this, but I watch the political and legal climate carefully.

(Posted: Thursday, June 29, 2017 at 3 PM EDT)

Downstream liability concerns for allowing others to use your business or home WiFi connection, and how to mitigate

A rather obscure problem of liability exposure, both civil and possibly criminal, can occur to landlords, businesses, hotels, or homeowners (especially shared economy users) who allow others to use their WiFi hubs “free” as a way to attract business.

Literature on the problem so far, even from very responsible sources, seems a bit contradictory.  The legal landscape is evolving, and it’s clear the legal system has not been prepared to deal with this kind of problem, just as is the case with many other Internet issues.

Most hotels and other venues offering free WiFi take the guest to a strike page when she enters a browser; the guest has to enter a user-id, password, and agree to terms and conditions to continue.  This interception can normally be provided with router programming, with routers properly equipped.  The terms and conditions typically say that the user will not engage in any illegal behavior (especially illegal downloads, or possibly downloading child pornography or planning terror attacks).  The terms may include a legal agreement to indemnify the landlord for any litigation, which in practice has been very uncommon so far in the hotel business.  The router may be programmed to disallow peer-to-peer.

There is some controversy in the literature as to whether Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act would hold hotels and businesses harmless.  But my understanding that Section 230 has more to do with a content service provider (like a discussion forum host or a blogging service provide) being held harmless for content posted by users, usually for claims of libel or privacy invasion.  A similarly spirited provision in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, called Safe Harbor, would protect service providers for copyright infringement by users.  Even so, some providers, like Google with its YouTube platform, have instituted some automated tools to flag some kinds of infringing content before posting, probably to protect their long-term business model viability. Whether Section 230 would protect a WiFi host sounds less certain, to me at least.  A similar question might be posed for web hosting companies, although it sounds as though generally they are protected.  Web hosting companies, however, all say that they are required to report child pornography should they happen to find it, in their AUP’s. You can make a case for saying that a telecommunications company is like a phone company, an utility, so a hotel or business is just extending a public utility. (That idea also mediates the network neutrality debate, which is likely to become more uncertain under a president Trump.)

Here’s a typical reference on this problem for hotels and businesses.

A more uncertain environment would exist for the sharing economy, especially home sharing services like Airbnb.  Most travelers probably carry their own laptops or tablets and hotspots (since most modern smart phones can work as hotspots) so they may not need to offer it, unless wireless reception is weak in their homes.  Nevertheless, some homeowners have asked about this.  These sorts of problems may even be more problematic for families, where parents are not savvy enough to understand the legal problems their teen kids can cause, or they could occur in private homes where roommates share telecommunications accounts, or where a landlord-homeowner takes in a boarder, or possibly even a live-in caregiver for an elderly relative.  The problem may also occur when hosting asylum seekers (which is likely to occur in private homes or apartments), and less often with refugees (who more often are housed in their own separate apartment units).

It’s also worth noting that even individual homeowners have had problems when their routers aren’t properly secured, and others are able to pick up the signal (which for some routers can carry a few hundred feet) and abuse it.  In a few cases (at least in Florida and New York State) homeowners were arrested for possession of child pornography and computers seized, and it took some time for homeowners to clear themselves by showing that an outside source had hijacked the connection.

Comcast, among other providers, is terminating some accounts with repeated complaints of illegal downloads through a home router.  In some countries, it is possible for a homeowner to lose the right to any Internet connection forever if this happens several times, even If others caused the problem.

Here are a couple of good articles on the problem at How-to-Geek and Huffington, talking about the Copyright Alerts System.  Some of this mechanism came out of the defeated Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), whose well-deserved death was engineering in part by Aaron Swartz, “The Internet’s Own Boy”, who tragically committed suicide in early 2013 after enormous legal threats from the Obama DOJ himself.

Along these lines, it’s well to understand that automated law enforcement and litigation scanning tools to look for violations are becoming more common on the Internet.  It is now possible to scan cloud backups for digital watermarks of known child pornography images, and it may become more common in the future to look for some kinds of copyright infringement or legal downloads this way (although content owners are good enough detecting the downloading themselves when it is done through P2P).

Generally, the best advice seems to be to have a router with guest-router options, and to set up the guest account to block P2P and also to set up OpenDNS.  An Airbnb community forum has a useful entry here.  Curiously, Airbnb itself provides a much more cursory advisory here, including ideas like locking the router in a closet (pun).

I have a relatively new router and modem combo from Comcast myself.  I don’t see any directions as to how to do this in what came with it.  I will have to call them soon and check into this.  But here is a typical forum source on guest accounts on Xfinity routers.  One reverse concern, if hosting an asylum seeker, could be that the guest needs to use TOR to communicate secretly with others in his or her home country.

It’s important to note that this kind of problem has come some way in the past fifteen years or so.  It used to be that families often had only one “family computer” and the main concerns could be illegal content that could be found on a hard drive.  Now, the concern migrates to abuse of the WiFi itself, since guests are likely to have their own laptops or tablets and storage devices.  There has also been some evolution on the concept of the nature of liability.  Up until about 2007 or so, it was common to read that child pornography possession was a “strict liability offense”, which holds the computer owner responsible regardless of a hacker or other user put it there (or if malware did).  In more recent years, police and prosecutors have indeed sounded willing to look at the usual “mens rea” standard.  One of my legacy blogs has a trace of the history of this notion here; note the posts on Feb. 3 and Feb. 25 2007 about a particularly horrible case in Arizona.  Still, in the worst situations, an “innocent” landlord could find himself banned from Internet accounts himself.  The legal climate still has to parse this idea of downstream liability (which Section 230 and Safe Harbor accomplish to some extent, but evoking considerable public criticism about the common good), with a position on how much affirmative action it wants those who benefit from technology to remain proactive to protect those who do not.

(Posted: Monday, January 9, 2017 at 10:45 PM EST)

Update: Tuesday, Jan 24, 2017, about 5 PM EST

Check out this Computerworld article (Michael Horowitz, “Just say No” [like Nancy Reagan] June 27, 2015) on how your “private hotspot” Xfinitywifi works.  There’s more stuff below in the comments I posted .  To me, the legal situation looks ambiguous (I’ve sent a question about this to Electronic Frontier Foundation; see pdf link in comment Jan. 24).  If you leave your router enabled, someone could sign onto it (it looks if they have your Xfinity account password, or other password if you changed it).  Comcast seems to think this is “usually” OK because any abuse can be separated to the culprit.

 

Does “Emergency BNB” provide a reasonable and scalable model for hosting asylum seekers, refugees, and maybe some homeless?

On Oct. 21 here, I did mention the site “Emergency BNB”, founded by Egyptian immigrant businessman Amr Arafa.

To my surprise, a story on CNN (October 21, 2016) by Camila De Chalus indicates that about 700 people or families around the U,S. have been willing to list their homes as potential hosts, link here.

It is called an “Airbnb for refugees” but no money can change hands, so it would not come under the regulations in many cities of offering private housing for rental.

The site is designed to help refugees (presumably that includes asylum seekers, who are legally in an even more compromised situation) and victims of domestic violence.

The article does say that hosts should expect to see documentation (like some sort of refugee immigration paperwork, or police reports or court restraining orders showing domestic violence) and that some applicants are turned down.

The site does have a short Wikipedia article, here.

There is a detailed story by Laura Bliss on Citylab in June 2016 here.

Shareable has a story on September 21, here.   Takepart compares it to “tweaking Aibnb” here .

The Washington Post had a bigger story Aug. 25 by Perry Stein, here.

One obvious question would be legal liability or risk for the host.  Some leases (maybe most) or homeowner’s associations might not permit it.  A host might hit bad luck and actually host a real criminal (the “Trojan horse” fear raised by Trump supporters).  A host could arguably be putting neighbors in danger, or could be liable for the misuse of his own high speed Internet connection (even if he or she supplied separate computers or smartphones).  Who would be responsible for the asylum seeker’s living expenses or health care costs?  Another good question would be, how long does the guest usually stay with the host?  Short term, or does he/she (or an entire family) live there long term?

It’s fair to compare the “risks” to offering your home for rental in Airbnb, and you can get insurance for some risks there.  People who “do” Airbnb may be more amendable to participating in a service like Emergency BNB.

One obvious question is whether the concept could be applied specifically to GLBTQ asylum seekers. A mission of Center Global of the DC Center (July 21). It’s significant that many of these are not allowed to work on their own and would need to become full dependents.

I have looked into this.  Generally, most gay organizations and churches have only fragmentary knowledge of the issue.  I’ve talked to two law firms in Virginia, and both imply no one should offer to do this without the services of a major social service agency to supervise the refugee (that doesn’t apply to the domestic violence part of the service).  I’ve tried to start a dialogue with Center Global and not gotten far yet.  Obviously the question of personal risk is unsettling.

In fact, the risk of playing “Samaritan” is as much a cultural question s a legal one.  People have different perceptions of their willingness to take risks for others outside their own families, or the moral ukase to do so.  It may be perceived as a question of faith (like that of the Rich Young Ruler, who had too much to lose).  People who interact in communities with strong social capital are better able to deal with this (even “under the table”) than feline people who do things on their own.  And some people may see hosting not so much as duty as a form of activism.

Personally, I would need to determine whether, in my situation, hosting is the “right” and even “expected” thing to do (more details ) .  That could set an example for others, and makes it hard to put on the table before any organization.

You can certainly extend this discussion tribally:  should we host our own homeless first?  But that isn’t generally expected as sharing behavior, as far as I can tell.

(Posted: Thursday, December 15, 2016 at 7:15 PM EST)

Sharing economy, especially Airbnb, runs into a conundrum about discrimination

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The sharing economy is producing a new mini-conundrum.  While it sounds like a good thing for the planet that people might buy fewer cars and houses and be able to share them more with travelers, and while this may add to more social capital of sorts,  there is still a problem that companies that run these services, like Airbnb for lodging and Uber and Lyft for ride-hailing, are public accommodations.  So these companies can’t discriminate against members of protected classes (by race and religion), and probably, in the mind of modern public values, other “classes” of people who are beginning to enjoy much more  social and legal protection (sexual orientation and now gender identity). But how does “society” handle the prejudices of their intermediaries: individual hosts and drivers?

So now the media reports an incident where a host in Minneapolis (normally a blue city) turned down a lodger after the latter had stated she is transgender. Forbes has a typical story by Shelby Carpenter.minneap1

Curiously, the story did not come up on a Google search in the Minenapolis Star Tribune, but another local paper carried it.    The New York Times reports discrimination by Airbnb hosts    Benjamin Edelman at Harvard has a paper on “racial discrimination in a sharing economy”   and apparently “black-sounding names” can invite discrimination.

Airbnb’s statement about its mission to “bring people together” is interesting. It calls itself a “community”.  It’s all about “trust between real people”.

In normal “private” social arrangements, people have the absolute right to control who can stay in their property or use their vehicles.  They’re responsible for what happens (and I wonder how the auto and homeowner’s insurance companies handle this, probably with extra “business use” coverages and endorsements, but I’ll have to check into that later).  And the companies are providing social media and other profiles of both consumers and hosts to one another, for approval.  People build reputations both as providers and as consumers.

I have to say that this is something I’m not overly thrilled about.  With most people I know, I probably don’t have an arrangement that I am welcome to “stay” when I visit – although I have done this a few times.  I suspect that’s pretty typical of many of us, singles and families.  In those cases, I “know” the person(s) and the reputation from the real world,   I can’t say that I’m thrilled about using social media to mediate my experiences every time I travel.  No, I don’t necessarily “belong there” all the time  Usually, I’d rather have a private, well-serviced (Internet, etc) secure hotel room in a different city.

But, I’m more “fortunate”.  I can afford it.  A lot of people, especially younger adults with student debt, can’t.  So, for someone used to dorm and graduate rooming house culture (as Mark Zuckerberg himself once was), starting and using sharing services makes perfect sense.  So it seems there is a new balance to be struck on the discrimination problem.

Airbnb has a statement on is policy here.   It is quite simply worded, but it seems to place the responsibility for compliance with anti-discrimination on the hosts.

All of this seems counter to libertarian and laissez-faire values, that let property owners remain lords of what happens on their “lands”.  But it’s disturbing precisely because more sharing may have to become the norm of the future out of sustainability concerns.  The “sharing economy” in housing could feed well into helping out with homelessness and even the refugee crises.

Airbnb contracts have clauses not allowing class action suits, as Katie Benner of the New York Times explains.

CNN Money has an article by Heather Kelly explaining how Airbnb and similar operations can affect a local rental market adversely, while the companies say they help homeowners with their cash flow to pay steep mortgages and other debts. Sharing is a two-sided sword, another example of herd effects.

(Published: Wednesday, June 8, 2016 at 1:45 PM)

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Update: July 8

There is a lot of debate in the media about whether Airbnb lowers affordable housing stock, or whether homeowners need it to help pay mortgages (sometimes upsidedown).  New York, San Francisco, Austin, and many other cities have tried to regulate it.  Here is a National Review article by “Kevinnr” on June 26, 2016 about the situation in Austin.

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Update: Oct. 31

A group called the “Social Justice Law Collective” (in Florida?) has started suing homeowners in Washington DC and Florida (at least) for violating housing discrimination laws merely for suggesting (even with flexibility language) in ads that their homes might not be suitable for families with children because of possible safety hazards, as in this NBCWashington story today (aired Oct. 31 on the 11 PM news) by Tosha Thompson, Rick Yarborough, Jeff Piper and Steve Jones. The suits could be initiated even by “testers”, people who had never stayed in the homes, on a theory of “insult” that rather reminds me of campus speech codes.  This sounds like “trolling” and a gross abuse of the law and common sense. To a libertarian, that is.  NBC4 warns that when a homeowner puts out the home for rent, it becomes a public accommodation and he or she no longer “owns” the home.  I wondered, what if renting just a room (as I did one time in a widow’s house when on the road in 1970, when starting working.) And then there is a reverse argument.

Indeed, one can argue, a hotel has to rent to everyone and has to make its rooms safe enough for children, so should homeowners who offer rentals have to abide by the same standard?  Theoretically, if even “amateur” rentiers were not held to the standard, society would get even more hostile to families with children (in comparison to the childless), further driving down fertility.

Changing the subject a bit. I would wonder about any possible downstream liability for homeowners for renter misconduct, such as misuse of a cable broadband Internet connection for illegal purposes while renting.  Could someone rent just for that purpose?

The Fair Housing Act text is here and would seem to apply to all states as well as D.C.

These problems could apply to both Airbnb and Homeaway and any other such “sharing economy” companies (Homeaway link).

I would wonder about free “charitable” services like “Emergency BNB” for “housing refugees.”

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I do remember that when I moved from NYC to Dallas at the beginning of 1979, many garden apartment complexes in Dallas were for “adult living” and families with children often had a hard time finding affordable rentals, giving them more incentive to mortgage themselves into homes.  It’s easy to imagine potentially perverse housing market affects (even bubbles like 2007).  Maybe the lack of these laws in past decades helped encourage exurban spread and drove companies to suburbs.

Changing the subject a bit. I would wonder about any possible downstream liability for homeowners for renter misconduct, such as misuse of a cable broadband Internet connection for illegal purposes while renting.  Could someone rent just for that purpose?  Airbnb has insurance coverage for hosts (link) but it’s hard to say if something like this could be covered. NBC4 has a story on the issue here.

The idea of holding small home-based businesses to the same “public accommodation” standard expected of large (heavily franchised) companies could have ramifications in other areas.  Imagine if I, as a self-publisher, had to make copies of my books available in Braille or large-print.

Update: April 27, 2017 at 11 AM EDT (also, see comments)

Aaron C. Davis of the Washington Post reports in Washington D.C. Metro section about Washington D.C. housing regulations: “Proposal for Airbnb regulations debated“.  Of course, the claim is that when people buy condos or homes mainly to turn them into short term rentals, that drives up the cost of housing for everyone and reduces affordable housing for rent. I still say, it this is true, there is something else wrong with the way the housing market works.  Property owners alone are not responsible for the lack of affordable housing (or is this “rent seeking” behavior?) Some people depend on Airbnb to help pay the mortgage. I don’t use it myself.