Technology is moving and changing so quickly that even its proponents are wondering if it’s happening too fast. No doubt. The whole “driverless car” thing terrifies most people, with “66% … scared of possible collisions when in the vehicles, while 45% … worried about cyber attacks stealing their personal data.”
Unfortunately, there’s something that hasn’t changed much in over a decade: the tech industry’s hypocritical litigation behavior.
In 2002, the Center for Justice & Democracy published a white paper called NOT IN MY BACKYARD II: The High-Tech Hypocrites of “Tort Reform.” At that time, the tech industry was pushing federal class action legislation to make it more difficult for consumers to win class action suits against corporations that commit fraud and other health, safety and environmental violations. They eventually got their wish in 2005 with a dumb law called the Class Action Fairness Act
But as the CJ&D study also found,
Litigation has become a time-honored way for high-tech companies to do business. But they do not like being held legally accountable by consumers. To these companies, the courts should be reserved exclusively for their patent, trademark, breach of contract and damaged property suits to recover for commercial losses. … Tort restrictions advocated by these companies virtually never limit the rights of corporations to bring such lawsuits.
Indeed, tech companies love running to court, like in 2002 when Amazon sued Von Eric Lerner Kalaydjian and his small business, Amazon Cosmetics and Tan Products, for using the word “Amazon” to sell beauty products. Or in 2001, when eBay sued a little company called BidBay, alleging that use of the word “bay” in its name and the overall appearance of the BidBay website infringed on the eBay trademark.
Sadly, that brings us to today, and to Airbnb – a company with staggeringly hypocritical litigation behavior. I mean, scratch your head, “did they just do that?” kind of behavior.
Airbnb requires its customers “to waive their right to sue, or to join in any class-action lawsuit or class-action arbitration, to use the service.” These “forced arbitration” clauses are so anti-consumer that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has proposed a rule to prevent companies (like banks and lenders) from imposing them on customers. (Public comments due August 22.) But that hasn’t stopped “hip” companies in the tech world, like Airbnb, however. As the New York Times wrote,
When there is litigation, Airbnb has not been afraid to use the class-action waiver clause. In March, the company cited the clause in fighting a class-action suit that accused Airbnb of acting as an unlicensed real estate broker. The company said the suit was moot because the plaintiffs had agreed to waive their class-action rights and, in a related clause, agreed to resolve disputes through individual arbitration.…
Airbnb may soon test the waiver clause directly in a class-action discrimination suit, which was filed in May in the United States District Court in Washington. The chief plaintiff, Gregory Selden, who is African-American, claimed Airbnb violated civil rights laws that forbid housing discrimination when a host on the service denied him accommodation last year because of his race. Airbnb’s response to the lawsuit is due by July 13.
Ok, this is all disturbing enough. But while arguing that the rights of Airbnb customers to go to court should be eliminated, they run straight to court when their own rights need protecting.
Airbnb went to court Monday seeking to block forthcoming amendments to San Francisco law requiring short-term rental companies to police their websites and remove unregistered hosts.
“While we have attempted to work with the City on sensible, lawful alternatives to this flawed new ordinance, we regret that we are forced to now ask a federal court to intervene in this matter,” Airbnb wrote in a blog post. The company’s suit in the U.S. District Court of Northern California seeks an injunction to suspend the new rules, claiming that they violate federal laws, including the Communications Decency Act, the Stored Communications Act and the First Amendment.
These are federal liability limitations that you may not even know exist. For example, explains SF Gate:
Section 230 of 1996’s Communications Decency Act shields Internet companies from liability for content posted by users on their websites. It covers reviews on Yelp, posts on Facebook and Twitter, and classified ads on a myriad of sites, among others.
And speaking of Yelp (cause Airbnb isn’t the only hypocrite here), at the same time the company is pushing terrible federal legislation that would wipe all out kinds of legitimate lawsuits (see our coverage last week ), it doesn’t hesitate to use the courts whenever it likes.
In sum, despite its trendy image, the tech industry appears to be no different than any other detested industry - at least when it comes to placing far more value on its right to sue than it does on the public's - and its own customers' - legal rights. Somehow we expected more.