Stallman on Openness. Don’t be an Ass

In today’s Guardian Richard Stallman writes a call-to-arms against technological surveillance. His form of opposition is to create free/libre software, but that is no solution.

Stallman confronts his readers: “Should you trust an internet of proprietary software things? Don’t be an ass.” He claims that “proprietary software is computing for suckers” and that proprietary software is a virtual synonym for malware. Of course proprietary software can be used and is being used to snoop on users, to shackle users, and to report data to companies. But so is free/libre software. Free/libre is not a magic talisman that protects you from all these harms. An internet of open source software things could be just as intrusive as an internet of proprietary software things.

Stallman writes: “What kinds of programs constitute malware? Operating systems, first of all. Windows snoops on users, shackles users and, on mobiles, censors apps; it also has a universal back door that allows Microsoft to remotely impose software changes.” 

So what about the free/libre alternative Linux, which apparently he wrote (“I developed the GNU operating system, which is often called Linux“), probably right after he “started free software in the 80s”. My Android phone runs Linux, and it spies on me. And all those NSA computers used for spying? They run on Linux. The biggest corporate contributor to Linux is Intel: is Intel morally better than Microsoft as a result of its contributions? (hint: No)

Or what about the databases used to actually store all that snooping information. The Acculumo database that the NSA developed specifically for the purpose and which is now kindly supported by the Apache Foundation; the Hadoop distributed file system that underlies Accumulo; the Java programming language used to write Hadoop and Accumulo? All open source.

In short, free/libre software is no longer an alternative to corporate and state snooping and shackling, it’s part of the problem.

Stallman avoids this conclusion by mixing up two separate things as if they are one. He calls on his readers to resist surveillance “by rejecting proprietary software and web services that snoop or track”. These are two different things. “Web services that snoop or track” can be and often are built on free/libre software.

Stallman also calls on his readers to resist surveillance “by organising to develop free/libre replacement systems and web services that don’t track who uses them”. But again this is mixing up two separate things. “Web services that don’t track who uses them” can be built on proprietary software just as easily as they can be built on free/libre software.

Stallman gets it right in his third call, to resist surveillance “by legislation to criminalise various sorts of malware practices“. The problem is one of practices, not free/libre vs proprietary software. I know some readers will say I am trying to blame the technology, but they will be wrong. And technology is not the answer either. Much as Stallman and others would like to believe that their practices of software development (free/libre versus proprietary) makes them rebellious hackers against an oppressive empire, freedom-loving opponents of surveillance, they do not.

A Quick Note on Airbnb’s San Francisco Report

A bad-tempered post, for reasons that will become apparent. The interesting bit is the map near the end.

So today Airbnb came out with a report to study the company’s economic impact in San Francisco. Or rather, as per usual, they didn’t: they talk about a report but don’t actually show it, which is par for the course with them. One has to wonder why.

So in their blog post here is what they say, and here are a few other questions they should answer and observations. I do hope people interested will talk to others who track what effect Airbnb has in their city, such as Share Better San Francisco.

Airbnb Claim: The Airbnb community contributed nearly $469 million to the San Francisco economy last year.

Response: What is  “contributed”? Does this mean “what visitors paid in rent”? or “what visitors spent while visiting” (and if so, how do they estimate it). Does “the Hilton Hotels community” contribute the total hotel income it makes from hotel rentals? They really should say what they mean.

Airbnb Claim: The average Airbnb host earns $13,000 per year hosting – money they use to pay the bills and stay in San Francisco, and shop at businesses like yours.

Response: They say the “average” Airbnb host, so I’m guessing this is the mean income, not the median. The mean will be more than most hosts earn, so the number is higher (better) than if they chose the median. (And if this is not what they are doing, why don’t they say?)

Airbnb Claim: The Airbnb community supports 3,600 jobs at the local neighborhood businesses they patronize.

Response: supports? what does “supports” mean?

Airbnb Claim: 72% of Airbnb properties are outside of traditional hotel districts, in neighborhoods that haven’t benefited from tourism in the past.

Response: This is what they always say to show how diverse they are. But looked at another way, my estimates show that over half of the total visits happen in just a few central San Francisco neighbourhoods (which have definitely ‘benefited from tourism in the past’, as shown here. Not quite as diverse as they claim.

san_francisco_neighborhoods

Airbnb Claim: The typical Airbnb property is booked about 6.5 nights per month, underscoring the point that these are people who are simply sharing space in the home in which they live.

Response: Note that they say “typical”, presumably meaning “median”, which will be lower than the “average”, so thay can emphasize the occasional nature of their hosts. It’s a slanted picture. Or, again, if it isn’t, why don’t they say so?

They could also point out that over 2/3 of their income comes from people renting out whole homes:

san_francisco_roomtypes

 

or that over a third of their business comes from people with multiple listings.san_francisco_multilister

But of course they don’t.

What’s going on with Airbnb in LA?

Today’s LA Times says “Airbnb cuts ties with vacation-rental firms in Los Angeles“. The story says that “Two of the home-sharing giant’s largest Los Angeles-area hosts—vacation-rental firms with dozens of apartments apiece—said Friday that Airbnb had dropped them from its site this week, canceling upcoming bookings and scrubbing their listings.”

An Airbnb rep called one of the affected landlords (AE Hospitality) and “mentioned the growth plans of Airbnb conflicts with us listing on their website… No explicit reason was given.”

I got a call from Tim Logan, one of the reporters on the story, asking if I could see anything going on, and was able to take a quick look and (at that time) it looked like 10 of the top 13 hosts (in terms of number of listings) were completely removed from the site, and I’m quoted in the story with that figure. Now I’ve been able to take a more complete look and can say a bit more.

There are two questions, of course. One is “What is happening?” What listings are being removed, whose are they, and what can we tell about those listings? The second question is “Why?” Let’s start with the “What?”

I ran a survey of Los Angeles in October 2014, and another over the last couple of days. Here are the main findings.

There is always a lot of flux in Airbnb listings, and much of that comes from people who give the service a try and then decide it’s not for them. But in Los Angeles there is something else. Here is a table showing the top   hosts (by number of listings) from October 2014, and the number of listings they now have on the site.

Table 1: The top hosts (by number of listings) in October 2014, and the number of listings they had then (2nd column) and have now (3rd) on Airbnb. The link goes to the host page (if it exists) or is redirected to a generic Airbnb page if the host has been removed.
Host ID October 2014 April 2015 Reviews Average Rating
3965199 74 0 15 4.50
1463129 73 0 397 4.47
558295 50 0 113 4.54
293855 30 0 296 4.26
7954 26 0 47 4.60
295792 23 0 143 4.68
3281907 23 0 25 4.50
66892 22 0 65 4.68
2917744 22 1 291 4.85
4925293 20 0 27 4.85
9088345 20 0 120 4.41
465624 18 18 789 4.44
8608492 18 0 39 4.42
3392276 16 18 43 4.67
8518444 16 21 23 4.52
49765 15 13 1 0.00
148358 15 11 160 4.95
1497543 15 15 252 4.76
3127239 15 15 184 4.32
8206200 15 15 109 4.39
57161 14 16 145 4.31
1466173 14 15 517 4.30
3324376 14 15 101 5.00
11907135 14 0 39 4.18
1316725 13 14 9 4.83
1458653 13 13 291 4.60
3947940 13 13 142 4.23
7266554 13 24 127 4.58
16151602 13 14 67 4.34
489690 12 12 46 4.72
1173362 12 0 150 4.45
2324191 12 15 173 4.32
3967730 12 14 118 4.64
4265938 12 8 42 4.11
5592355 12 10 68 4.62
219283 11 16 34 4.78
239712 11 12 590 4.23
1221532 11 12 25 4.30
1254174 11 12 86 3.90
3097566 11 11 88 4.45
9762413 11 12 253 4.57
9928881 11 0 20 4.40
19341612 11 0 12 4.54
213865 10 9 158 4.46
2622454 10 10 780 4.52
5281327 10 4 212 4.65
5425196 10 0 190 4.17
9505402 10 19 247 4.65
9759851 10 11 8 4.69
3343353 9 14 14 4.89

Airbnb has basically removed all the top hosts (who had 20 or more listings) and also removed a smattering of others. (If you have a booking at this listing I would make other plans.)

So why has Airbnb done this? They made their usual bland, substance-free comment to the LA Times: that the company’s “mission is to connect hosts with guests and provide a quality, local and authentic experience. We routinely review our platform for market quality and adherence to this mission.”

Quality looks out: as a user to the site what you see is the rating of the listing, and many of the eliminated hosts have high average ratings. For example, the Urban Flat Team have had their listings removed but had an average rating of 4.85 (out of five), while the Venice Beach Hostel has a rating of only 3.90 (which is pretty crap) but is still on the site.

It’s also nothing to do with the type of listing. Most of the top listers are listing out mainly “Entire home/apt” listings (as opposed to a private room in a house or a shared room) but then so does Prive Luxury Rentals and they have actually increased their number of listings from 16 to 21.

What’s left is the statement of the sales rep to the AE Hostel agency: that these listings are interfering (probably with no fault of their own) with Airbnb’s public image. The LA Times mentions the possibility
of maneuvering in advance of an IPO, and this must be in the minds of some of the Airbnb executives. Also, the LAANE report from last month may be having an impact.

My guess is that Airbnb knows it has to look after its image as a peer-to-peer company, and that they are removing some of the most high profile professional partners from the site in preparation. So all well and good (although hardly fair on those partners), but is it sincere?

Probably not. Here are a few facts that Airbnb will probably not publicise:

  • In October 2014 there were 49 hosts with 10 or more listings in LA. Now there are 60.
  • In October 2014, visits to Airbnb hosts in LA were split evenly between “single-lister” hosts and “multi-lister” hosts. Now the balance has tilted slightly towards multi-listers: their percentage has increased from 50% to 52%.
  • In New York, where Airbnb previously had a clean-up of large listers, the number of hosts with 10 or more listings has increased from 19 to 46 between October 2014 and March of this year.

In short, the professionalization of the Airbnb business continues, and this looks like just an attempt to remove some of the more obvious commercial companies.

Could it be something else? Of course it could, but if Airbnb wants to be taken seriously as a company that can regulate itself (and it really does) then it needs to come clean with the reasons for its actions rather than hiding between vacuous PR speak and turning, seemingly at random, on its partners.

Yesterday in Airbnb

First, this report on Airbnb in Los Angeles, by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), is fantastic, especially compared to Airbnb’s own study from December. It mixes data with thoughtful commentary with investigative work that could only be carried out by someone who knows the city. (I did contribute a bit of help in the data collection area, but had nothing to do with writing or the report itself.) Here are some highlights.

  • Airbnb’s report has this to say about its impact on neighbourhoods (in total):

Airbnb distributes economic impacts to neighborhoods that have not traditionally benefited from tourism spending. With Airbnb properties in more than 80 Los Angeles neighborhoods, Airbnb visitors are staying in and exploring places they might never have otherwise visited.

The LAANE report shows that the Airbnb business is, in fact, concentrated on areas that are already heavily affected by tourism: while “AirBnB has units listed throughout Los Angeles, but just nine of the City’s 95 neighborhoods are responsible for generating 73 percent of the company’s revenue.” In tourist hotspot Venice, one in eight units are now Airbnb rentals.

  • 1010 Wilshire is a high end apartment building with 227 units in Downtown Los Angeles; but 20% of its units are now listed as tourist accommodation on Airbnb.
  • The host you see on the site, with a photo and personal note, may not actually be the host. “Danielle and Lexi” were two young women with “verified ID”, but it turns out that they are just a front for Ghc vacation property rentals.

And there’s a lot more. Worth a read if you have any interest in the subject. The report has been picked up by the LA Times, Curbed LA, and more.

Elsewhere, Inside Airbnb has extended its beautiful maps to Portland. They have also collaborated with Willamette Week to chart the shape of Airbnb’s business in the city, and the results will be familiar to readers of this site: Airbnb’s story of being a site where “regular people occasionally rent the home in which they live” is misleading.

The real Airbnb story is gradually getting out there, of a site that uses the heartwarming stories of a few of its hosts to provide a cover for a growing cadre of professional renters using the site to avoid municipal regulations around safety (no fire inspections), zoning (driving gentrification of tourist areas), and taxes. It’s good to see diligent, talented people like LAANE and Inside Airbnb push the debate forward.

Going quieter for a while

This blog will be going even more quiet than usual for the next few months. The reason is a good one, which is that I have a contract to write a book on and around the sharing economy. As the writing has to be done in and around my actual job and home life I will have to put any and all available time into it for a while.

The Airbnb coding and analysis turns out to be a great way to procrastinate from actually writing, so I will have to put it to one side for now.

In the meantime, anyone interested in the issues raised here may like to look at the following:

  • Henry Farrell’s “Dark Leviathan” in Aeon Magazine is one of the best things I’ve read in ages on issues of trust, governance, and digital technology. Plus it’s got lots of juicy details on Silk Road.
  • Murray Cox has put together a beautiful site called Inside Airbnb, which maps the New York data in more detail than I do here. It’s invaluable. Plus it has led to other analyses, like this one here by Ben Wellington, which delve further into the specifics of New York.

See you back here before too long, I hope.