Airbnb Responds to Racism by Tweaking Anti-Bias Policies for Hosts

"When we designed the platform — three white guys — there were a lot of things we didn't think about," Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said.

"When we designed the platform — three white guys — there were a lot of things we didn't think about," Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said.


By Sheryl Estrada

Opponents of Airbnb rally at City Hall in New York. REUTERS

The Twitter hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, filled with accounts of Black people who experienced discrimination when attempting to rent a property from an Airbnb host, was a catalyst in the company's revision of its nondiscrimination policy.

The San Francisco-based short-term online rental company, with a board of directors that is all male and majority white, released a 32-page report last week. The report outlines how it plans to counteract discrimination on the website based on race, gender, age and even name.

A Harvard University study found that Airbnb requests from guests with "distinctively African American names" are roughly 16 percent less likely to be accepted than identical guests with "distinctively White names."

Changes include displaying photos of potential renters less prominently, promoting instant bookings and finding accommodations for anyone who has been discriminated against. The company will also implement technology to prevent hosts from booking new guests if they tell another guest their listing is not available for the same period of time.

To help formulate anti-bias policies, Airbnb hired advisers such as United States Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington D.C. Legislative Office, wrote the company's anti-discrimination initiative — Airbnb Community Commitment.

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky sent an email to hosts and guests outlining the efforts. It said, in part:

"Beginning November 1, everyone who uses Airbnb must agree to a stronger, more detailed nondiscrimination policy. We aren't just asking you to check a box associated with a long legal document. We're asking everyone to agree to something we're calling the Airbnb Community Commitment, which says:

"We believe that no matter who you are, where you are from, or where you travel, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community. 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."

Story on Discrimination Goes Viral

At the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in July in Aspen, Colorado, Chesky told attendees what worried him was "the discrimination we are having on our platform."

"When we designed the platform — three white guys — there were a lot of things we didn't think about," Chesky said. "There are racists in the world and we need to have zero tolerance."

In May, Rohan Gilkes, who is Black, published an essay on Medium.com about discrimination he experienced when attempting to book a rental on Airbnb in Idaho. Gilkes posted his photo, information about himself and the dates he desired to rent a cabin, which the website said were available.

The host responded she was going to use the cabin and it wouldn't be available. Gilkes then changed his dates of travel in hopes of securing the rental. But the host never responded. He then asked a friend, who is white, to request the same cabin on the same dates. The host immediately approved, saying her plans changed and the cabin would be available for rental.

"Moral of the story: Last time I'll be using Airbnb until they fix this widespread issue (they said they are addressing it and will come up with a solution)," Gilkes wrote.

The story went viral. As a result, Chesky said he wanted to do more than just "address the issue" to cover company liability. He wanted to find a way to end discrimination on Airbnb.

"If we tried to 'address the issue,' I think we'll be on the wrong side of history," he said. "We can drive change the rest of world will mirror."

Airbnb plans to make its anti-bias training program available online and intends to highlight hosts who participate. All staff must receive anti-bias training.

The company has also introduced hiring rules created to increase diversity among senior-level positions and said it will retrain customer service representatives on its diversity policy.

Airbnb's new agenda is receiving mixed reviews. Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, an anti-discrimination organization, said Airbnb's plans are a victory for activists and individuals who sparked the protests.

However, Ben Edelman, the lead author of the Harvard Business School report, is doubtful the new policies will be successful.

"The natural approach is to conceal the information about race that is giving rise to discrimination," Edelman said.

He wrote in an assessment, "Preventing Discrimination at Airbnb," the solution is to "limit the distribution of irrelevant information that facilitates discrimination."

Jamila Jefferson-Jones, who teaches law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, said profile pictures remain an issue.

"I think that profile pictures should either be eliminated or only shared after the booking is confirmed [and] that names may need to be treated the same way," Jefferson-Jones said.

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