As Airbnb expands in China, so does the pressure to fully comply with China’s seemingly ever-changing laws on data “protection.” The latest change to Airbnb’s China operations is that the company will now preemptively share booking details with Chinese authorities, including passport details, in a move that the company describes as now simply complying with local laws.
Theoretically, this move should allow Chinese authorities to know where Airbnb users are staying in the country, and for how long. Under Airbnb’s previous booking regime in China, guests were obliged to share passport details when making a booking, but this data was only handed over to relevant authorities upon request.
While the move may spark outrage with Airbnb customers concerned with privacy, the policy change is less of a radical shift toward undermining customer privacy in China and more akin to Airbnb becoming a “normal” travel accommodation provider in China.
The move makes Airbnb more like other accommodation providers in China
As a matter of fact, all hotels in China already share passport and booking information of customers with authorities and have done so for decades without any notable outrage.
On the contrary, hotels and other accommodation providers who do not share passport information for whatever reason (whether it being an unlicensed hotel or a friend’s apartment), potentially cause more of a nuisance for customers. According to Chinese regulations, tourists must always communicate with authorities where they’re staying in China, and if not at a hotel that submits such information per standard practice, a visit to the local police station to register within 24 hours is a requirement.
The required visit to the police station is likely something that will no longer be required when staying at accommodation booked through Airbnb with this change in data sharing practices—but this has yet to be confirmed by the company.
Whereas the move should have little practical implications for Airbnb guests in China, the change may be of a more significant magnitude to the many Airbnb hosts in the country who often operate in a legal gray area. According to Airbnb, the company will now start disclosing information about Airbnb hosts to authorities as soon these hosts start accepting bookings. In other words, relevant Chinese authorities will have a good sense of precisely who is renting out how many rooms/apartments/houses and for how long, which may or may not end up being used to enforce proper business registration and tax payments.
The impact on hosts will likely be more significant
Exactly how large the ramifications of Airbnb’s policy shift will have on its business in China remains to be seen, but it seems likely that the host-side of the transaction will be the most exposed to potential ramifications. Airbnb on Thursday pre-emptively reached out to hosts in China to let them know that information will be shared with Chinese authorities starting tomorrow, Friday. Hosts unhappy with the changes were provided the option of de-listing their properties from the platform.
How many of the around 140,000 listings Airbnb currently has in China that will remain listed is anyone’s guess, but could expose just how many of Airbnb’s hosts in China were acting in a legal gray area (or darker.)
With Airbnb’s high ambitions in the Chinese market, the move should perhaps not come as a huge surprise to the platform’s many hosts in China. In Airbnb’s efforts to corner the Chinese market, it has become remarkably more Chinese—and not only in name (Aibiying). Its Chinese competition is, compared to home sharing in other countries, highly business-oriented, with a significant share of “hosts” actual businesses or property developers renting out uninhabited apartments. Personal homes, and particularly individual rooms, are much rarer than in other markets where Airbnb operates.
Airbnb is simply becoming more Chinese as its attempting to expand in China
Consequentially, Airbnb’s move may just make the company more akin to its Chinese competitors as more risk-averse and less business-like hosts withdraw from the platform.
The next obvious step for Airbnb is to attract a slew of new hosts that are comfortable with its data sharing policies. At 140,000 listings, Airbnb is far behind Tujia’s 400,000 listings—and that’s before a potential exodus following these changes.