DATA DECEIT

Airbnb admits that it purged 1,500 unflattering New York listings right before data release

Getty Images

In a pair of letters sent to state legislators and Airbnb users in New York, Airbnb admitted that it purged more than a thousand New York City listings from the site before publicly releasing data to regulators as part of a push to publicize corporate transparency.

The data culling made it appear as though there were fewer professional hosts with multiple listings using the site to make a living off illegal short-term rentals. In other words, Airbnb removed from its data hundreds of the very listings that were the subject of regulatory concern—not exactly transparency’s standard definition.

“We removed roughly 1500 listings,” Airbnb admitted in a letter to New York users on Wednesday.

The data cleanse, Airbnb said, was “an effort to remove listings that appeared to be controlled by commercial operators and did not reflect Airbnb’s vision for our community.”

After a report earlier this month revealed that the number of hosts with multiple listing had suddenly, sharply declined in the weeks just prior to the data release, Airbnb refused to directly respond to my questions about whether it had manipulated data. The company said elsewhere that the sudden dip could be the result of a listings surge during “the busy marathon and Halloween weekend.”

In the letter to users, Airbnb also admitted that it had caused a dip in the percentage of revenue earned by hosts with multiple listings. Airbnb acknowledged that at present, nearly 40 percent of the revenue from whole-home listings comes from hosts with multiple units for offer, even if those hosts are the minority. The company said it expects “the fraction to drop” as it continues to remove commercial listings.

In a statement to Fusion, Airbnb emphasized that this was not the first time it had removed listings.

“We released our Community Compact and made clear that we were serious about tackling affordable housing issues,” a spokesperson said via email. “We took action and the data shows that our community continues to change for the better. We’ve removed listings before and we won’t hesitate to do so again.”

However the original report—published by Tom Slee and Murray Cox, two technologists who have made a hobby of investigating the practices of Airbnb—a suspiciously large number of removals in the weeks immediately before November 17, the sample day Airbnb chose to draw data from for regulators.

The coincidence is hard not to view suspiciously, especially when paired with the fact that Airbnb did not at the time come clean about the removals, instead suggesting that the dip was merely a data anomaly with a reasonable explanation. The purging made the snapshot seem as though Airbnb had engineered a significant improvement over a report the previous year from the New York State attorney general’s office that claimed that nearly three-quarters of Airbnb rentals in the city were illegal.

Airbnb’s business model depend on changing regulations in cities around the world, so the big question is whether the company can be trusted,” Slee told me. “It denied the removal of listings to whitewash their report: now it is admitting the action. This is not the behaviour of a trustworthy company.”

Airbnb very well may have purged listings that violated site rules. But the timing turned what might have been routine maintenance into a sneaky numerical sleight of hand.

This story has been updated to include a statement from Airbnb.