Airbnb is a growing phenomenon as people rent out their homes and apartments as an alternative to hotels: often giving visitors more room and costing less than hotels. (For the record, we recently used Airbnb to rent a house in California) A recent case in Madrid has shown the inherent danger in such sites. On July 4th, Jacob Lopez called his mother on her cellphone in a desperate call for help. He said that when he arrived at his Airbnb, he found his host in the apartment who locked him in a room and demanded sex from him. The mother, Micaela Giles reportedly tried to get Airbnb to act but they refused and told her to call police.
The mother called but its employees would not give her the address and would not call the police. Instead they gave her the number of the Madrid police, which turned out to reach a recording in Spanish that she did not understand. When she tried to call Airbnb back, she simply reached voice mail.
In the meantime, her son was allegedly raped and eventually says that he was able to convince his host to let him go. He returned to Massachusetts and is in trauma therapy. The host was born a male but lives as a woman. She has denied threatening Lopez and says that the sex was consensual and that Lopez is transphobic.
It seems a rather curious way to dealing with transphobia: to repeatedly call for help and then file an official report.
It is not clear what the Spanish police are going to do with regard to the alleged culprit but the case does raise the question of the liability for Airbnb. I can understand the reluctance to share an address with a caller for privacy reasons. However, there are a host of things that Airbnb could do from contacting the host to contacting the police for the mother to staying involved with the mother to help in a myriad of different ways. The responses, as described by the mother, seem grossly negligent.
Lopez says that he had a good experience with Airbnb in Brazil but then faced the nightmare in Madrid. After locking him in, the host allegedly told him to take his pants and tried to kiss him. By the time his mother realized that Airbnb would not help and that she would have to get the address from her son, she says that his host had cut off Internet access.
After the alleged assault,Lopez made up a story that he had friends nearby who would be looking for him or would call the police. He says that the host relented and let him leave.
He gave a report to the police, who visited the host. He says that they expect the host to be exonerated by police. That seems a bit odd when you have not just the alleged victim but a witness in the mother with contemporaneous calls from her son. There are also calls to Airbnb. That is more than some “he said/she said” case.
For Airbnb’s part, the company had a curious response. It said that Airbnb wants sexual assault victims to be able to decide for themselves when, how or if to report a crime. Really? A mother calls to say that she just got a call from her son asking for help (the only source of such information) and you wanted to be sure that he wanted to report the crime? Airbnb added that it “believed that the assault had already taken place.” Again, so what? The mother was saying that her son was trapped and that there was a rapist in the unit.
Nick Papas, a company spokesman, “We realize we can learn a lot from this incident and we can do better.” Yes, Mr. Papas, there is clear since your company did nothing all. However, that learning curve may be hastened with a lawsuit.
On a side note, I recently had dealings with Airbnb when I tried to inquire with their media office about their registration process. I was surprised to find that people are asked to register through their email but, when you look at the details of what that means, Airbnb says that it includes the right “to manage your contacts.” When you hit the information link on what that means, it just repeats “manage your contacts.” For lawyers particularly, such a note is unnerving. I wrote to Airbnb to ask why they would have to have any access to contacts at all and why they did not explain what this meant. Airbnb did not answer despite my interest in writing about it. I am still interested in receiving a response since this would seem a barrier for many professionals but it also seems entirely unnecessary and opportunistic (You can register by use of a video, but that process was also crudely structured and odd to use. I used it but it lacked basic features to confirm that the video was submitted and information on the aspects of the process going forward).