Airbnb Executive Resigned Over Chinese Data Sharing

Issue 46

11.23.20 - When Airbnb filed its S1 last week, the company disclosed that its ability to continue doing business in China is a risk factor for its brand and profitability.

Operating in the China has sparked debate among the startup’s senior leadership for some time, leading a top executive to depart abruptly last year.

Airbnb hired Sean Joyce, a former deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in May of 2019 as its first “chief trust officer,” a role that entailed protecting users’ safety on the platform.

He resigned six months later over concerns about how the massive rental platform shares data on millions of its users with Chinese authorities.

A high-profile hire for Airbnb, Mr. Joyce grew increasingly alarmed during his tenure that the company wasn’t being fully transparent about the data it shares with the ruling Chinese Communist Party government, including for Americans traveling within the country, these people say. He was further concerned about what he viewed as Airbnb’s willingness to consider more expansive data requests from China.

Airbnb has told users since 2016 that it shares information with Chinese authorities, according to a review of its communications. Even so, Mr. Joyce believed most people using the platform weren’t made aware of the extent of the data being shared, which included phone numbers, email addresses and messages between users and the company.

Nick Papas, a spokesman for Airbnb, said the company complies with applicable laws, regulations and requirements when responding to requests for data, similar to Western hotel chains operating in China.

“We are committed to being transparent with our community, and clearly disclose our data policies to all of our hosts and guests by displaying a clear message to users when they are on the platform and through multiple other notifications,” Mr. Papas said in a statement. The data policies were in place before Mr. Joyce joined “and continue to this day.”

Mr. Joyce said he had a “difference in values” with Airbnb. He declined to comment further.

In the summer of 2019, Chinese officials approached Airbnb with an unwritten request for more user data, including more “real-time data,” such as when a user first makes a reservation, said one person familiar with the matter.

Mr. Joyce worried such data-sharing would enable Chinese government surveillance and put members of minority ethnic groups such as repressed Muslim-majority Uighurs at risk, that person said.

He voiced his concerns to senior executives, including in a summer 2019 meeting that included Chief Executive Brian Chesky and co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk, who leads Airbnb’s China unit, the people familiar with the matter said. While the executives were sympathetic to Mr. Joyce’s concerns, one of these people said, the discussion came at a moment when executives feared they might not be allowed to continue operating the company’s large business in China.

“We’re not here to promote American values,” Mr. Blecharczyk told Mr. Joyce, according to people familiar with the conversation. Mr. Joyce resigned shortly after.

Source: Wall Street Journal