Luke Yates outlines the key findings in a new report looking at Airbnb’s ‘Home Sharing Clubs’ and corporate-sponsored grassroots lobbying in the wider digital economy.
Since the financial and economic crisis of 2008, a number of digital platform businesses including Airbnb, Uber and Deliveroo have transformed the worlds of travel, accommodation, food delivery and employment. But they are also changing the nature of democratic political systems.
There was much initial enthusiasm for what was provisionally named the ‘sharing’ or ‘collaborative’ economy, referring to digital ‘platform’ businesses with few assets which connect consumers with providers of services. Yet despite early optimism and influential advocates, critics have since pointed towards the precarious forms of employment and labour rights abuses that many platforms rely on, unregulated and untaxed consumption, intensified gentrification and loss of affordable housing, problematic forms of tourism, and the advance of private economic interests at the expense of the public good.
Where governments or civil society have contested the rapid expansion of platforms or have attempted to hold platform businesses to account for their roles in these problems they have been met with creative and well-resourced political responses from the corporations – and increasingly from their users. The future of the new digital economy depends on these struggles.(1)
An important tactic used by digital economy businesses in these conflicts has been ‘platform-sponsored grassroots lobbying’. Platform-sponsored grassroots lobbying is a controversial public policy approach for using the methods and power of collective action by citizens to shape regulation and public policy, win public legitimacy, and neutralise critical social movements in the area of the platform economy.
A new report
On March 23rd, Ethical Consumer in collaboration with the University of Manchester, published a new report looking at the ethics and transparency of this type of corporate political organising. This report focuses on Airbnb, one of the biggest companies in the ‘platform’ economy, who resource, mobilise and coordinate their landlords as political advocates to lobby for their preferred forms of regulation. Since 2008, numbers of short-term lettings, many of which might otherwise house permanent residents, have expanded dramatically. The associated problems, around housing shortages, tourism, taxation and urban conviviality, have led to social movement opposition and local attempts to regulate. Airbnb’s use of grassroots lobbying, where businesses influence democratic institutions by creating and coordinating apparently independent social movements to act on their behalf, has been key in their response.
The report examines Airbnb’s ‘home-sharing clubs’: associations of selected Airbnb landlords that are trained to advocate for favourable regulation. It analyses documents and interviews twenty-one former Airbnb public policy staff who worked across fourteen countries in North America and Europe, in the most intensive and sustained platform-sponsored grassroots lobbying strategy in the world to date.
Airbnb, like the sharing economy, was initially championed for its potential to create new sources of income, employment, and strengthen community. However, many of these benefits have not materialised. Airbnb has grown rapidly, with tens of thousands of listings in many cities which affects availability of housing for permanent residents and contributes towards gentrification.
A majority (59%) of Airbnb listings are ‘professional accommodation offers’, and only 8% of listings are one room of a single home.(2) High availability throughout the year for many listings removes them from the residential market. In addition, a significant industry of management companies allows landlords to play little role in ‘hosting’.
The response of cities
The early challenges to the narratives of the collaborative economy and Airbnb came in a few cities where tourism and the housing market were already politicised: San Francisco, Barcelona, New York, and to a lesser extent Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris
For example, in 2015, San Francisco was the most expensive North American city to live in based on average rental costs. Dwindling stocks of affordable housing led to campaigners successfully collecting sufficient signatures of residents needed to launch a referendum, ‘Proposition F’, which asked citizens to vote on various measures to stiffen regulations around short-term rentals including the limiting of listings where the owner is not present to 75 nights per year.
Airbnb spent over $8m successfully opposing the bill. The campaign hired consultants, researchers, social media specialists and eleven full-time political campaigners who had experience from the Obama electoral campaigns.(3) They led a campaign to engage local users of the platform. According to the company, their team made 32,000 phone calls to the 6,500 Airbnb landlords in the city, several hundred of whom were persuaded to attend protests and court hearings, and claimed to have spoken to 105,000 people. (4)
‘Home-sharing clubs’ are associations of selected Airbnb landlords who are resourced, mobilised and coordinated by Airbnb public policy teams to advocate for favourable regulation. They are created predominately and in disproportionate numbers in cities where the effects of Airbnb are leading to calls for stricter regulation. Like more traditional lobbying and PR practices, they target public officials and public opinion. They have been deployed in hundreds of towns and cities globally.
The report argues that these associations are made up of an unrepresentative segment of Airbnb landlords – carefully avoiding the 59% of ‘professional landlords’. It suggests that Airbnb’s claims that its clubs are representative of its users are therefore misleading.
The report also claims that the clubs are clearly Airbnb’s response to regulatory pressure, despite public facing materials from the company downplaying their political function. It then goes on to present evidence challenging Airbnb’s suggestions that its home sharing clubs are independent of the company.
Should we be worried?
The report identifies three key issues of concern.
The first concerns transparency: the practices of grassroots lobbying and the considerable financial resources backing these groups them are not widely recognised. Globally, they are very seldom registered as a matter of public record, due to light lobbying regulation. If the funding and nature of relationship between the groups and businesses are made transparent, would they continue to be effective?
The second issue concerns the distribution of power and benefits. The successes of mobilising platform business users appear likely to accrue disproportionately to the businesses. They may disadvantage ordinary citizens and in some cases the mobilised constituency themselves.(5) The successful practice of grassroots lobbying campaigning may be associated with further job losses, missed opportunities to secure employment rights, the gentrification of cities, and loss of permanent housing.(6)
The third issue concerns corporate power. There is a risk that public participation, consultations, and other civil society arrangements that allow citizens to shape policy become dominated by corporations.(7) This may undermine opportunities to challenge the problems caused by corporations and corporate political power, and may further erode public trust in institutions, government and civil society. Platform-sponsored grassroots lobbying may undermine the capacity of citizens to shape society democratically.
An opportunity to build back better?
The public health and economic crisis associated with the Covid-19 pandemic lends the governance and future of the new digital economy further urgency. Increased unemployment from the most affected sectors may push more workers into precarious and low-paid industries where platform businesses are redefining expectations around workers’ rights and shifting economic and health risks onto employees and the state. Rental platforms such as Airbnb are in a state of potential reconfiguration due to restrictions in international travel and tourism. The current context is a watershed moment for evaluating digital platforms, their contribution to society, their governance, and their future. Airbnb’s recent IPO, furthermore, presents an important opportunity to step back from its practices, and to imagine how its problems might be addressed and its practices reconfigured.
The report makes several recommendations including:
1. Statutory lobbying registers that require disclosure of funds spent on grassroots lobbying
2. Sufficient resources for municipal governments to enforce regulation to protect local housing:
3. Records of meetings between policy-makers and grassroots lobbyists.
4. Adherence by companies to responsible lobbying guidelines.