In an episode of the popular television show South Park, a fictionalized Steve Jobs forces a group of the show’s characters to permit themselves to be sewn together, in a reference to the shock horror film The Human Centipede. Jobs is able to do this, the show notes, because no one reads the iTunes Terms of Service and thus won’t notice the clause permitting it.
Nothing so absurd has come from America’s tech sector, of course. Nevertheless, whenever a new abuse of tech’s power comes down the pike, such as locking users out of their private documents because those documents include “offensive” language, or shutting users out of their emails, or conspiring to block apps that favor free speech from their online stores, or targeting users of a disfavored political persuasion for bans, the justification given is always that the terms of service require it. Never mind whether those terms of service are fair or consistent with American legal principles.
So, it seems only fair to ask, do these same companies follow the rules they set for themselves? In at least one case, the answer is clearly “no.”
According to a report last week from a Los Angeles local CBS affiliate, the home-sharing giant Airbnb has permitted convicted felons to rent out homes using its service. There’s just one problem — Airbnb claims to do a background check on all its hosts to ensure this sort of thing doesn’t happen. And yet, one of the hosts implicated by the CBS report had this to say when asked if Airbnb was aware of his criminal history:
“I don’t think they even asked.”
It gets worse from there. Another host, named Zameer Azam, served ten years for felony kidnapping, which seems like the sort of thing you would want to know before literally making yourself a visitor in someone’s home. And, surprise, surprise, Mr. Azam’s guests had a bad time with him. One visitor reports having men walk right into her unit and stare at her while she was in the shower, and in the bedroom. Small wonder that members of Los Angeles’ local government desperately want to regulate Airbnb.
This is more than just a lurid local story, when put in context. Airbnb has shown itself more than capable of banning perceived undesirables from its service, as shown by its decision to ban suspected white nationalists during the Charlottesville debacle. If they can ban people over politics, they should be able to follow their own rules and keep criminals off their platform as well. Granted, Airbnb isn’t particularly good about following U.S. law, given that they both enable their users to avoid taxes and have enabled illegal immigration in the past. But those acts, heinous as they were, didn’t rise to a violation of the rules that Airbnb itself claims to follow. This story does. And it sends a terrible message about Airbnb’s priorities that it is willing to allow convicted kidnappers on its platform, but cracks down on people over politics. It’s almost like the #BlackLivesMatter-inspired social justice ideology that has infected Silicon Valley has mixed up priorities!
Airbnb is almost certainly not alone in this type of hypocrisy, but for the moment, it happens to be the tech giant caught with its hand in the cookie jar. Los Angeles should respond to this story with as firm a hand as possible, and so, for that matter, should national policymakers. If Silicon Valley titans are going to persecute Americans for the smallest infraction of their byzantine terms of service, it’s only fair that they be forced by their own rules as well. Perhaps the sensation of their own straitjacket will teach them a lesson about using the fine print as a pretext for tyranny.