August 20, 2013 | By Jillian York

Airbnb: Don't Let Sanctions Confuse You

When Amir Shafi got the notification from Airbnb saying that his account had been terminated, he was surprised. The Iranian national, who is a resident of Switzerland, had recently returned from a trip to Istanbul, where he had successfully rented accommodation through Airbnb.  When he returned from the trip, he received a notification asking him to verify his account.

“I was happy to see there is a verification process,” says Amir, which is why he immediately uploaded a scanned copy of his Iranian passport.  “It makes any community work better, so I immediately did what the website was asking me to do.” A few minutes later, he received notification that his account had been verified. 

But just hours later, Amir received an email that Airbnb had closed his account. The message read:

Hi Amir,

Unfortunately, while we at Airbnb would like to keep our marketplace open
to the world, we are required to comply with US federal regulations that
restrict the use of our site by residents of certain countries. Therefore,
we are not be able to support user accounts from users from certain
countries, until such regulations change. We apologize for any
inconvenience and appreciate your understanding in this matter.

Amir immediately replied to the email, but after ten days of receiving no reply, decided to go public with his story. He posted a screenshot of the email to Twitter, and within hours the story had gone viral and Amir had received a call from Airbnb, promising to look into the situation.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Last year, an Apple store in Georgia refused to sell an iPad to Sahar Sabet, an Iranian-American, when the employee overheard her speaking Persian. Google blocks Persian-language advertisements from its AdWords service, regardless of where the advertising business or its customers are located.

What these companies all have in common is their overbroad interpretation of sanctions policy. While the sanctions, regulated by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, cover a wide range of products and technologies, they are in no way intended to deny service to Iranian nationals living outside of the country. As State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated in response to last year’s Apple incident:

[T]here is no U.S. policy or law that prohibits Apple or any other company from selling products in the United States to anybody who’s intending to use the product in the United States, including somebody of Iranian descent or an Iranian citizen or any of that stuff.

Judging by later statements, Airbnb seems to be aware of this. In a response sent to Arash Azizzada and posted to Twitter, the company clarified:

The Office of Foreign Assets Control has certain restrictions on U.S. companies that prevent them from transacting with customers that are located in Iran, as well as certain other restricted countries.  http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/Programs.aspx

Customers who provide proof of location in a country that is not restricted under OFAC should be able to proceed through the Verified ID process.  Our Customer Service team is happy to work with any customers that are having difficulty and assist them with our Verified ID process.

While that’s all well and good, Amir Shafi’s experience shows that Airbnb has not been particularly helpful to Iranian customers. Rather than kick them off the service, the company should proactively offer an immediate path of recourse for customers from OFAC-restricted countries who make the error of uploading the “wrong” ID. A simple explanation of the issue, followed by the opportunity to upload a secondary form of identification, would be a simple fix.

We hope to see Airbnb change its ways and offer a simple way for affected customers to rectify the situation and restore their accounts.


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