Airbnb adopts new anti-discrimination policies: Do they go far enough?

Researchers and civil rights advocates are concerned the company didn't eliminate profile pictures or make other broad changes to its online lodging marketplace. 

Jeff Chiu/AP/File
Airbnb co-founder and chief executive Brian Chesky speaks during an announcement in San Francisco in April 2016. The online lodging marketplace adopted a new set of anti-discrimination policies Thursday.

Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky acknowledged Thursday the company has "been slow" to address complaints of racial bias when he announced a new set of anti-discrimination policies that include the reduction of the prominence of profile pictures, more instant booking, and implicit bias training for hosts.

Researchers and civil rights advocates who have been critical of Airbnb say the announcement, in and of itself, is progress; it indicates a shift in company attitudes to address complaints of "widespread discrimination" in its online lodging marketplace. But some critics say the policies themselves don't go far enough. In particular, Airbnb didn’t abandon user photos or make instant booking (which lets renters book rooms without owner approval) the default setting for its platform, they say.

"Airbnb has chosen not to make the changes that would lead to the largest reduction in the extent of discrimination," says Michael Luca, one of three authors of an ongoing study through Harvard Business School that found hosts were more likely to discriminate against guests with names that sounded African-American. "Instead, they've proposed a series of smaller changes in the hope that that would also have a nontrivial effect on discrimination."

"That may be effective, but the onus is on them to be extremely transparent about the extent of discrimination not just now, but on an going basis in the marketplace, so users could get a sense of whether this combination of steps they have a meaningful effect," Dr. Luca tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

In a 32-page report Airbnb released Thursday, it introduced a new set of anti-discrimination policies that it has asked its online network of hosts and guests agree to abide by in a "community commitment" pledge:

By joining this community, you commit to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias. 

In addition to the policy, the company aims to expand instant booking to 1 million listings by January 2017. The company says it has more than 2 million listings worldwide. It has also laid out plans to diversify its workforce a number of ways. The company says less than 10 percent of its US employees are from "underrepresented populations," according to The Washington Post.

But Airbnb is already receiving complaints about its decision not to abandon user photos and not allow users to request rentals anonymously. Instead, the company will explore reducing the prominence of profile photos and names.

"After thoroughly analyzing this issue, I came to believe that Airbnb guests should not be asked or required to hide behind curtains of anonymity when trying to find a place to stay," writes the report’s author, Laura Murphy, a former longtime American Civil Liberties Union official who was brought on as an adviser to lead Airbnb’s review. "Technology can bring us together and technology shouldn't ask us to hide who we are. Instead, we should be implementing new, creative solutions to fight discrimination and promote understanding."

Benjamin Edelman, a co-author with Dr. Luca of the Harvard paper, disagrees, saying providing users anonymity would be "a complete solution to the problem."

"The idea of concealing information is not a whacky theme. It's a standard approach used by thousands of employers," he tells the Monitor, mentioning hotel booking tools such as Expedia. "Airbnb has made it a lot harder by trying to convince the public it's beyond the state of technical understanding, which I don’t think is true."

Airbnb's announcement comes after months of criticism for its failure to address discrimination against some of its users. In December, Professor Edelman, Luca, and Dan Svirsky, a doctoral student, published a working paper that found fictional guests with names like Lakisha or Rasheed were about 16 percent less likely to be accepted by hosts than guests with names like Brent or Kristen. This and users' personal experiences led to the Twitter hashtag, #AirbnbWhileBlack – where users shared their experiences of rejection or discrimination while using the site – the development of similar platforms geared toward people of color, and a class-action lawsuit against Airbnb that alleges racial discrimination, as Simone McCarthy reported for the Monitor.

Some of the original critics of what seemed to be passive acceptance of that discrimination on the part of Airbnb welcomed the company's efforts Thursday. Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change told The Guardian the company now appears to be taking the matter much more seriously.

"When we approached Airbnb ... the engagement was not at a high level. In many ways, we felt like they did not see this as a problem or saw this as something they could wish away," said Mr. Robinson. "This has been a very different engagement … and we're hoping that that this does address the problem," he said.

Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program, tells the Monitor that while the organization is pleased with many of the changes, its concerned the company chose to keep user photos. 

"A lot really depends on how the policy changes are implemented, and how vigilant Airbnb is investigating claims of discrimination, as well as proactive steps to ensure discrimination doesn't occur," says Mr. Parker. 

Racial discrimination, especially against blacks, has long persisted in American housing and job markets. Over the past 50 years, regulators have instituted laws aimed to curb discrimination, notably the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the sharing economy and companies like Airbnb and the ride-hailing company Uber have presented problems for these discrimination laws. In the class-action lawsuit for instance, the Civil Rights Act excludes people who live in their homes who rent five or fewer rooms.

"This means that the company, if it is not viewed as the sum of its parts, may not be able to be held accountable in a court of law,” writes Ms. McCarthy for the Monitor.

That's why Luca says it’s important they share this information with users and regulators, so that everyone, not just an Airbnb, can work toward a solution.

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