Airbnb's Industry Mouthpiece Astroturfs for Donations

While Airbnb funneled some of its $326 million in venture capital toward movie replica conference rooms, a skee ball machine, and corporate myth-making at its shmancy new Soma headquarters, the company's non-profit partner is soliciting non-tax deductible donations from regular shmoes to keep the sharing economy in the margins to which it has become accustomed.

Peers is a non-profit "advocacy group" that launched in July with industry "partners" from the "sharing economy," including Airbnb, Lyft, and TaskRabbit. At the time, CNET said the goal was to "promote and protect the businesses and groups that allow people to share goods and services." Executive Director Natalie Foster couched it as grassroots initiative that focused on "community building," not lobbying:

While Foster has a keen interest in how tech can disrupt politics and encourage social change, she said Peers will not focus on pushing or lobbying for legislation. But, it can't hurt the companies to have a nonprofit advocating for their cause.

That distinction is harder to swallow since Peers cofounder Douglas Atkin, who also happens to be head of community for Airbnb, sent out a corporate plea to New Yorkers directing them to a Peers petition, without mentioning Airbnb's affiliation. That petition is mentioned in an end-of-year email plea from Peers (in full below), along with its success in "changing ridesharing laws in California." Those laws benefit Lyft, which recently instituted minimum fares and surge pricing, instead of "donations."

In the same plea, Peers asks people to "chip in $5" to fuel their work . . . on behalf of profit-driven interests. Columbia Journalism Review recently took Fortune magazine to task for presenting Peers as a for the people, by the people initiative:

"The people" and their "grassroots activism" Fortune's referring to are organized by Peers, the lobbying group founded by big Silicon Valley corporations to protect their fortunes from existing law and regulation.

And even the regular people Fortune refers to here are effectively mini-corporations themselves—ones that skip the taxes and other regulatory requirements competitors face. I'd bet few of these Airbnb activists breaking into groups and heading to Albany to lobby legislators are folks who rent their flat out for a few days a year while they're on vacation. They're much more likely to be people who make serious money doing it. Fortune reports that some Airbnb users bring in more than $400,000 a year in sales.

Airbnb created Peers earlier this year and one of Airbnb's executives is its co-director. Ebay billionaire Pierre Omidyar's foundation is the "major backer," according to this Fast Company story (the Omidyar Network is also a funder of CJR). Omidyar's foundation is an investor in a for-profit Airbnb-like site and Omidyar's eBay has taken up the antitax mantle from Jeff Bezos and Amazon, fighting against an Internet sales tax in a bid to keep his sellers' unfair price advantage over bricks-and-mortar retailers.

The same Fast Company article noted the Omidyar Network's role profiteering off of peer-to-peer networks:

Omidyar Network has been criticized for co-opting and commercializing sharing innovations, like relaunching CouchSurfing, the original lodging-sharing community, as a for-profit company, and promoting for-profit rather than nonprofit models of microfinance lending.

Airbnb, which is valued at $2.5 billion, needs to get those "democratically imposed woes" fixed before it IPOs in order for its VC backers to get the best multiple on their investment, adds CJR:

The so-called sharing economy would be more accurately called the sublet economy, which would be more neutral, to boot. Who could possibly come out against sharing? Subletting, however, is a more complicated term. It raises questions about the rights of neighbors and of owners not to have their building turned into a hotel—not to mention the ability of the government to tax these transactions.

We reached out to Peers to ask whether its well-funded industry partners also donate to the collection plate its trying to pass around and will update the post if we hear back. In July, CNET said: "The businesses don't fund Peers. Instead, they will promote the nonprofit to their users." Without disclosure, it seems.

Russ Choma, a reporter for OpenSecrets, told Valleywag that Peers does not seem to have filed yet with the IRS. "Trade associations (501c6) and social welfare (501c4) can engage in politics, but that doesn't necessarily mean they do," he said. "Considering the background of all the people (Organizing for America and DNC) you'd assume they will."

Eventually, a 990 form will have to detail how much money they have. Until then, won't you lend these titans of sharing a hand?

Here is the full email from Peers:

————— Forwarded message —————
From: Natalie Foster, Peers.org<hello@peers.org>
Date: Wed, Dec 4, 2013 at 7:13 PM
Subject: It's been an incredible year - thanks to you, Sam !
To: Sam Biddle <biddle@gawker.com>

Hello Sam ,

Since we launched in July, members like you have turned Peers into a powerhouse through the sheer force of your time, energy, and talents.

When you look at it in one place, it's pretty incredible. We've had a ton of impact so far - from changing ridesharing laws in California, to racking up over 230,000 signatures on a homesharing petition in New York, to hosting 120 dinner parties around the world.

But our work's just begun and we need your help to keep up the momentum. Will you chip in $5 now to fuel future Peers work?

Let's build on the foundation you've created:

You're mainstreaming the sharing economy, so more people are willing to try new sharing services.

  • You spread the word - and Peers is now nearly 250,000 members strong.
  • You caught the attention of more than 60 media outlets, which called us "a new voice to go up against traditional industries" and "a unified voice for what many have come to regard as a movement".
You're growing the sharing community, so more people can enjoy the benefits of sharing.
  • You hosted 120 potluck Dinner with Peers events in 92 cities and 32 countries.
  • You were inspired by meeting fellow Peers, you created Peers City Groups to keep the energy and action going.
You're protecting our opportunities to share, and helped make smart progress on new regulations.
  • You gathered, more than 200 strong, to walk together to the California Public Utilities Commission meeting that ultimately made ridesharing legal in California. Members like you were an important public voice in shaping this historic decision.
  • You helped Peers members Erica and Brian in Grand Rapids, Michigan, gather 1000+ signatures and successfully convince the City Commission to protect home-sharing.
  • You're working hard in New York, where Peers member Mishelle started a petition calling on New York lawmakers to fix a poorly written law that puts homesharing in jeopardy. Her petition has more than 230,000 signatures (and growing!). And recently, more than 200 New Yorkers attended a Peers community meeting to discuss how to fix the law and are now preparing to meet with dozens of state lawmakers to spread the word.
We need your support to keep building on this momentum. Will you chip in $5 now to fuel future Peers work?

Peers exists to serve the people that drive the sharing economy — that's you! And you've got a lot of ideas for what we should work on next year. With your support, Peers will realize as many of them as we can.

Here's just a few of the ways your donation could be used:

  • To build local sharing guides and host share fairs
  • To make sure the media hears more of your stories
  • To rally Peers members when a sharing service you depend on is under threat
  • To create more videos, images and content that helps demystify the sharing economy —- in a way your Grandmother would understand
  • To build a toolkit that makes it easy for Peers members all over the world to lead their own sharing efforts
Every single dollar counts. Please support us in moving this ambitious agenda forward next year!

Enjoy your holidays.

Natalie

Natalie Foster Executive Director

          To contact the author of this post, please email nitasha@gawker.com.