How Airbnb and Uber are using activist tactics that disguise their corporate lobbying as popular campaigns
What David Cameron once called “the far too comfortable relationship between politics, government, business and money,” said been in the public eye through his own lobbying on behalf of the influential finance company of former billionaire Lex Greensill. The former British Prime Minister predicted that lobbying would be “the next big scandal” after parliamentary spending. He was proven correct.
With Prime Minister Boris Johnson call an inquiry in the episode, all this raises questions about the lobbying laws the Cameron government introduced in 2014. They seem so weak that apparently nothing in the current saga was illegal.
Exemptions to the rules that prevent corporate lobbyists like Cameron from having to be on the statutory register have left up to 80% of intact corporate lobbying.
Yet this is not the only aspect of corporate lobbying that should worry us. Recent practices among digital economy companies such as Uber and Airbnb illustrate that many activities that go against Transparency International guidelines for ethical lobbying can take place without breaking any of the existing UK rules.
In addition to traditional lobbying, these digital platforms have cultivated “grassroots lobbying” initiatives in which they resource and mobilize their users to push for deregulation or to block government proposals or sanctions. They do this using civil society practices such as online petitions addressed to politicians, one-on-one meetings with representatives, demonstrations and partnerships with existing civil society groups.
My recent report in association with the Consumer Ethics Research Association explore this. Airbnb, the main case study, hired hundreds of “community organizers”Since 2014 to create more than 400 apparently independent associations of owners, mainly in Europe and North America, but on all seven continents. The company offers members of these so-called house sharing clubs (sometimes also referred to as host clubs) with political training, refreshments, and the rental of meeting rooms, as well as the transportation, editing and rehearsal of owner testimonials, and the suggestion of political goals that the company wish.
Airbnb clubs do not follow inclusive approach in the countryside which is common in the tradition of community organization from which they are inspired. Former staff members describe how they organized clubs of individuals or small businesses that rent properties on the platform, rather than the business owners who tend to hold the majority of registrations and have been of greatest concern to activists and policy makers.
Airbnb says clubs exist to allow owners to ‘make new relationships’ and ‘discuss issues in their communities and help each other find more information about local rules’. Yet our research has revealed that clubs are funded and coordinated by Airbnb around its regulatory goals. They are particularly concentrated in cities where the company faces the greatest challenges, such as Barcelona, Berlin, Edinburgh, New York and San Francisco.
In Paris, for example, a former employee said Airbnb intended to start a club in each arrondissement, after being confronted with proposals to force landlords to register short-term rentals with the authorities. Here and elsewhere, local governments and poverty activists concerns tend to revolve around housing, short-term rentals being linked to rising rents and long-term residents being forced to leave neighborhoods.
Other platform companies also regularly engage users and staff, although few examples appear as elaborate as Airbnb’s approach. For example, in November 2017, a #SaveYourUber petition was addressed to Mayor of London Sadiq Khan after the London Transport Authority refused to renew Uber’s security license. It turned out to have been initiated by Uber’s UK and Ireland manager Tom Elvidge. This is a routine tactic for the company, which has created a large number of similar petitions internationally using a petition tool. Changer.org.
Another example is the electric scooter company Bird, which added a push-button notification to its app to encourage its customers to flood local lawmakers in Santa Monica, Calif., With emails of support. It was on the back of a criminal complaint made by the town hall against the company in 2017.
Power of the platform?
Popular corporate-sponsored lobbying, sometimes referred to as “astroturfIs better known in the United States than in Europe. It is generally associated with the the tobacco, pharmaceutical and fossil fuels Industries.
The tactics used by platform companies such as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Bird, and delivery company Doordash are similar to traditional astroturfing, but with major differences. Where astroturfing campaigns are typically initiated by Consulting firms in public affairs, companies in the digital economy tend to hire staff in-house, with training in NGO organization or campaigning. As “internal” lobbyists, they would not be subject to the UK transparency laws – just like David Cameron’s work for Greensill.
Another difference is that the platforms also seem to leverage their users’ data to engage their customers, owners or drivers – Airbnb phoning owners to entice them to join home sharing clubs falls into this category, for example.
Concerns of civil society
Popular corporate-sponsored lobbying is a growing concern for transparency activists such as Observatory for Business Europe, a supporter of the report, and Transparency International (TI), which specifically warns against “hidden and informal influence”. At the most extreme end, TI notes, this “includes acting through front organizations,” which are entities that act as the face of another organization. My report argues that this is how we should understand Airbnb’s relationship with its clubs.
Charities such as Community organizers and many tenant unions are also concerned about this form of lobbying, especially when it opposes community campaigns for the protection of affordable housing. Community organizers worries that, “Policy makers and customers will react as if this is a real grassroots campaign, rather than a corporate lobbying effort.” Former Airbnb employees share this concern.
I also question the legality and ethics of political use platform data. Few users, when contacted, are likely to be aware of having consented to become recruitment targets for corporate political organizations.
Regulation of lobbying outside of Canada and a few US states still says little about popular corporate-sponsored lobbying, so there is a risk that the practices will continue to develop without scrutiny. The issues of too narrow a definition of corporate influence are becoming clear, whether it’s internal lobbying like Cameron’s or these “grassroots” methods. A complete overhaul of the rules around lobbying seems urgent.
We invited the digital companies in the article to respond to the report’s findings.
An Airbnb spokesperson responded:
We announced the creation of host clubs at a press conference in 2015. Host clubs have always worked closely with our teams to champion the Airbnb community and we are incredibly proud of this work.
A spokesperson for Doordash said:
We know our Dasher community values the flexibility to win when and how they choose, because they tell us every day. This is exactly why we are committed to protecting these additional revenue opportunities, while continuing to work with state and federal lawmakers to combine Dashers independence with greater security.
The other companies did not respond in time for the publication.