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Airbnb host information to remain private, B.C. judge rules

A housing advocate calls the decision "disappointing."
Housing advocate Rohana Rezel nearby newly built condos in south Vancouver.

A B.C. judge has weighed in on whether or not the names and addresses of Airbnb hosts should be made public, as like that of a typical licensed business.

That’s the debate that has swirled since March 2019, when housing advocate Rohana Rezel applied to have the City of Vancouver release all the names and addresses of roughly 20,000 Airbnb hosts.

The city denied his request in June 2019, but Rezel won an appeal at the Office of Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C., which ruled against the City of Vancouver and Airbnb, who both argued against disclosure.

But, Airbnb appealed the commissioner’s decision on privacy grounds and on July 4, Supreme Court of B.C. Justice Jasvinder Basran ruled in its favour, noting the commissioner failed to assess in a reasonable manner whether a host address is personal information, which is otherwise protected from public view under law.

“I do not accept the [commissioner’s] rationale that by virtue of a principal residence being used as a place of business, this information loses its character as personal information,” wrote Basran.

“This binary analysis fails to consider the relevant context and risks of the disclosure of this information and is therefore unreasonable,” the judge added.

Basran also noted that the commissioner did not adequately justify its decision to not notify all the Airbnb hosts that would be affected by its decision.

As such, Basran “quashed” the decision and remitted the matter back for reconsideration with notice sent to the hosts.

Ruling reinforces lack of transparency with City of Vancouver: housing advocate

“It’s disappointing,” said Rezel, who is anonymized in Basran’s decision as “John Doe Requester.”

Rezel said he applied for the information to make short-term rental operations more transparent, claiming people get evicted from long-term tenancies for such operations and it’s important for residents to know if their neighbourhood, or prospective neighbourhood, has short-term rental units.

“We are a jurisdiction that operates on a lack of transparency in real estate and in business,” said Rezel. “Unfortunately, this ruling will reinforce that.”

Rezel maintains the City of Vancouver has put in place two rules for one system, considering traditional licensed bed and breakfasts, which operate from primary residences as well, have their operators’ names and addresses proactively disclosed.

Rezel notes Airbnb hosts are operating a business, as income derived from Airbnb must be reported to the Canada Revenue Agency.

“But Airbnb gets this special licence where they’re allowed to operate a business in secrecy,” said Rezel, adding he will seek to reapply to the commissioner, who will proceed with the court’s new guidance.

Interpretation of privacy laws tested in case

The case struck at the roots of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which holds that a public body must withhold personal information where disclosure would lead to an “unreasonable invasion” of a third party’s personal privacy.

Because the business operation is linked to a primary residence, as required by the city’s short-term rentals bylaw, much was left to interpretation.

The City of Vancouver argued it withheld addresses after perceiving there to be a risk to the safety of hosts, and their properties, if their addresses and names were publicized.

The commissioner held that host addresses were provided to the City of Vancouver to receive a business licence and it is therefore “business information.”

However, while Basran accepted the commissioner’s position that the City of Vancouver’s safety claims lacked evidence, Basran ruled the commissioner failed to do a proper privacy assessment of the matter.

As such, the judge also ruled that hosts ought to have been notified of the commissioner’s decision, or the commissioner’s written decision should have provided more reasons for not notifying hosts, which it did not.

“There is no way to meaningfully assess the justification, transparency, and intelligibility of this implicit decision,” noted Basran.

Rezel said if 20,000 Airbnb hosts need to be notified, the new process could draw out for years.

“That will delay the process for a long time. It’s going to take years before we see any information come,” said Rezel.

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