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Platform or provider?
IDENTITY CRISIS

Europe’s top court says that Airbnb is a website, not a property agent

By Rosie Spinks

As Airbnb has grown to become arguably the largest travel company in the world, one question has dogged it: Is it a website connecting guests with hosts? Or is it a provider of accommodation itself?

This platform-versus-provider debate is being fought in cities across the world, with some local officials arguing that Airbnb should bear the same legal, safety, and tax responsibilities as, say, a hotel or guest house owner. Meanwhile, Airbnb argues it’s merely a platform that has no direct hand in brokering the millions of overnight stays of its users.

In a what will be welcome news for Airbnb, an advisor for Europe’s top court agreed with the company yesterday. Advocate general Maciej Szupunar of the European Court of Justice said that the company should be considered a “information society service,” not a provider of accommodation. Thus, it should be subject to the EU’s provision for the free movement of information, rather than regulated by rules designed for other industries.

The comment came in response to a complaint from a French tourism association, which alleged that Airbnb (which in Europe is headquartered in Ireland) created unfair competition by acting as a kind of real estate agent without complying with the rules for that sector. While Szupunar’s opinion is non-binding, the Guardian noted that the court sides with its advisors’ recommendations 80% of the time. A binding ruling is expected to follow in the coming months.

A statement from Airbnb said the company was glad that the advocate general’s opinion “provide[d] a clear overview of what rules apply to collaborative economy platforms like Airbnb and how these rules help create opportunities for consumers.”