By Andrew Langer, President, Institute for Liberty
When new technologies come to market, there are always unintended consequences. This is certainly true when it comes to new internet applications and services—sometimes unforeseen problems occur, and sometimes these apps can be used in ways that were and are completely unwanted by the inventor.
Unfortunately AirBnB finds itself in exactly this kind of scenario. Nobody disputes the revolutionary aspect of AirBnB—it’s the epitome of what makes the internet so vibrant, the ability easily match those selling/renting a good or service with those willing to pay for that good or service. In this case, anyone with a spare home (apartment, room, boat, treehouse) can easily be matched with someone who temporarily needs that space—generally someone who might otherwise use a traditional hotel/motel/hostel.
But AirBnB is now having to contend with a problem that those traditional lodging businesses have had to grapple with for some time—their use in illegal sex work, and worse, for sex trafficking.
As the public (and thus, law enforcement) decided to make the curtailing of illegal prostitution a priority, and became alarmed at the issue of trafficking, agencies at all levels began working with, and through, these hotels and motels to finding solutions toward the problem. Some through major law enforcement actions, and otherwise through cooperative and educational approaches.
It was probably to be expected that, as these efforts began to achieve their goals, criminals began to explore new avenues to do their work. AirBnB, with its ease of use and lack of easy oversight (both, admittedly, full of merit), became an attractive service.
At a seminar in Maryland in March of 2019, Sgt. Deborah Flores of the Maryland State Police told this story about an AirBnB:
“We’ve busted every kind of business and house you can imagine,” Sgt. Flores said. “We recently [apprehended] a 19-year-old trafficking her 14-year-old sister in Baltimore. AirBnb’s are now used for sex [trafficking].”
Since the traditional lodging industry was instrumental in working with law enforcement, it is now incumbent upon AirBnB to engage on this issue – and law enforcement is, at least, letting AirBnB users know.
Montgomery County, Maryland, which is dealing with all kinds of violent crime, put out a fact sheet for those engaged in the short-term rental industry, discussing how human trafficking has become a problem for those who rent out their homes on sites like AirBnB, and how to recognize and combat such trafficking.
Here is the dilemma facing AirBnb—if they fail to act, then the political process will intervene. Legislators at the federal level and in various states will step in and pass new laws aimed at “fixing” this problem (as is being discussed in Congress right now).
This is something they should be working overtime to avoid. Nobody wants new mandates—and AirBnB is no different. But they have to get much more active in dealing with criminal abuse of their services.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.