Airbnb and Uber: the need for social sharing sites to gain trust through privacy compliance

29 June 2015 | Sophie Bradshaw, Corrs Chambers Westgarth

Take away messages

  • In the social economy, particularly for social sharing companies, like Uber and Airbnb, gaining and maintain users' trust that the privacy of their personal information will be protected is key.
  • Is there an "Australian link"? For a social sharing platform that is foreign-owned, its handling of Australian users' personal information outside of Australia may be subject to the Australian Privacy Principles.
  • The challenge for social sharing companies is how to unlock the commercial value in the data collected, while maintaining user privacy (and, as a result, user trust). The answer lies, at least in part, in having a robust privacy compliance program and transparent data handling practices.

The privacy of our personal information has, in many respects, become a commodity to be traded for goods and services: if you receive goods or services for free, it is likely that it is you (or your personal information) that is the product. But, as social sharing companies like Airbnb and Uber have discovered, as individuals become more privacy-aware, they are increasingly reluctant to hand-over personal information, unless they trust that their personal information will be protected and properly handled. A strong privacy compliance program and corporate culture of valuing privacy go a long way to gaining and maintaining user trust.

Lessons from Airbnb and Uber privacy "incidents"

The privacy concerns of an Australian Airbnb user (triggered by a request from the platform to upload a personal video) were reported in the mainstream media and across social media earlier this year. Airbnb's Australian manager reportedly justified the company's "video policy" on security grounds and assures users that the videos are used for "verification purposes".

Uber ran a similar argument in 2014, when privacy concerns over the service were raised (in particular, that Uber staff had access to the locations of prominent Uber customers). Uber sought to reassure users as to the limited access rights for its employees and updated its privacy policy to specifically address these concerns.

Whether or not the privacy concerns are well-founded, the extensive media coverage of both incidents has potentially caused reputational damage to the companies and undermined user trust in their platforms.

And trust, as sites like Airbnb and Uber know, is critical to the success of platforms which rely on the open sharing of users' personal information. Uber openly declares that "[its] business depends on the trust of the riders and drivers that use our technology and platform".

The challenge for Airbnb, Uber and other social sharing sites is how to unlock the commercial value in the data collected through the platform, while maintaining user privacy (and, as a result, user trust). The answer lies, at least in part, in privacy compliance.

Read full article at Privacy Law Bulletin, June 2015, Volume 12 No 6

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