Investor Fred Wilson comes to the defense of Airbnb

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on April 28, 2014

From The News Desk

The last few weeks have been a bit rocky for Airbnb. The specter of a subpoena forcing the company to fork over thousands of customers' data to the state of New York hangs over the company's head. Meanwhile, both Airbnb and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have been doing a media blitz trying to prove themselves impervious of any wrongdoing.

Today, Union Square Ventures founder Fred Wilson took to his blog, AVC, to defend the home-sharing platform. His question was a simple one: Is there a safe alternative for the service Airbnb provides?

He pointed to two important features on the site: identity verification and smoke and carbon monoxide alarm requirements. "Do apartments rented out on Craigslist verify the identity of their guests? Do apartments rented out on Craigslist provide smoke and carbon monoxide alarms?" he asks.

He also extends these two questions to hotels, which is a truly weak argument given the fact that user verification is done primarily to protect guests from owners and not vice versa. Not to mention hotels are required, by law, to have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. 

Wilson's article is another signal that the fight is as much a public relations battle as it is a legal battle. No matter what one side asks of the other from a legal perspective, the answer will be in the form of an antagonizing question. "You think we're acting illegally," asks Airbnb, "But what about the safeguards we provide as a service?" The original question remains unanswered in lieu of a marketing parry.

What we have on one end is the Attorney General saying they obviously are acting illegally and therefore the state must act with broad and swift brushstrokes. Airbnb avoids this claim by pointing to the good it has done for the city of New York.

Last week Airbnb hosted a community meetup bringing in the company's legal council to chat with those who want to discuss the future of the company and/or air their grievances. Unsurprisingly, no new information was brought to light and instead Airbnb reasserted itself as a critical companion to New York's city information structure. The Awl pointed out that while the idea of those acting illegally was present throughout the conversation, the company's head of public policy referred only to "bad actors." With this, the question was altogether avoided.

And now we have Wilson. In his blog post he shifts the conversation away from what is and is not illegal, but what good comes from the company as a whole. "I think the better approach would be to have a conversation with Airbnb's executives about how to make the service work better for New Yorkers," the venture capitalist wrote.

This isn't the first time Wilson, who is not an investor in the company (one of his many regrets) has defended Airbnb, but this post seems much more pointed toward the probability of New York state legislation.

Yet Wilson's latest post completely skirts the issue Attorney General Schneiderman constantly invokes: that many listings on the site are not legal. It seems we've gone beyond negotiations over legality and to a constant regaling of talking points. The company and its supporters continue in this vein with a new petition calling on Schneiderman to "protect all New Yorkers" instead of fortifying big hotels. Schneiderman, it seems, will continue to assert that he is merely enforcing the law.

The question is whether these statements will ever answer the others' complaints or if the yelling match will simply continue.

Watch our full fireside chat with Fred Wilson: