While the fine is small for the US-based company, which has been valued at more than $10 billion, the move represents a new twist in the escalating battle over short-term rentals in Spain. For the first time, government officials are going after a Web site, not the landlords, hoping to shut down a key link between homeowners and tourists.
Web sites like Airbnb and HomeAway have helped facilitate a boom in short-term rentals; in cities like Barcelona the number of apartments available for rentals of less than 30 days has more tripled in recent years.
For homeowners, holiday rentals represent the opportunity to charge higher rents and avoid the hassles of dealing with long-term renters, who are difficult to evict if they stop paying rent. With sale prices still falling, rentals have become a lucrative way for owners to generate revenue from their property.
But the growth of the industry has led to a backlash. Barcelona, Madrid and Andalucia have all moved to regulate the business in recent months. While government officials cite complaints about noise and trash, flat owners believe the new regulatory efforts are primarily the result of lobbying by the hotel industry, which is eager to limit the new competitors.
Attacking the Internet sites is a new approach growing in popularity around the world. In New York, where government officials have tried for years to limit short term rentals, the state attorney general has sued Airbnb demanding information on users who may be advertising illegal renters.
But this is a gray area of the law. The sites are not renting apartments and it could be argued they are not responsible for policing whether or not users are following local regulations. Airbnb can’t be held liable for the actions of its users any more than Twitter is responsible for what is tweeted, industry officials argue.
The fine by the Catalan government is clearly a shot across the bow of the Web sites, a warning that they are willing to use their regulatory powers to fight illegal rentals. If Airbnb does not comply, government officials are threatening to block the site in Catalan, according to El Pais.
However, that would open the door to a variety of complicated legal issues, requiring cooperation from internet providers and the courts. It would also vault short term rentals into the same discussions as the struggle over sharing technologies such as car-ride app Uber, which are disrupting entrenched industries.
“Barcelona should stay on the cutting edge of innovation, and we’re disappointed to see a ruling … that will hold the city back,” Airbnb said in a statement to Reuters. “We will continue to provide robust information about the rules in Barcelona, and require all Airbnb hosts to follow those rules.”