Airbnb is banning people from using its site because of their mere association with other users the short-term rental company has deemed a safety risk and removed from the platform, a decision that highlights the imperfect security protocols that Airbnb employs.In instances where a user is banned because of their association with another user deemed problematic, the user can only return to the platform if their problematic acquaintance successfully appeals the ban or if they are able to prove they are not “closely associated.”
In a statement, Airbnb confirmed to Motherboard that it does sometimes ban users because the company has discovered that they “are likely to travel” with another person who has already been banned, though a spokesperson wouldn’t say when this practice started or how often it occurs. The company said it does this as a “necessary safety precaution,” and a spokesperson said referring to such bans as merely a result of association is overly “simplistic.” But the process appears opaque; just this month, the company apologized and said it had made a “mistake” in banning the parents of right-wing activist Lauren Southern.In recent years, Airbnb has prioritized the safety of the users on its international platform in an effort to combat concern that the platform puts either guests or hosts at risk. The company has publicized a decision to permanently ban parties after a series of shootings and deaths and threatened legal action against guests who break the rule. More quietly, for a decade now, the company has had background checks completed on its users. Since 2016, they have been completed by a third-party service that claims on its website to complete background checks in less than 0.3 seconds. The speed is a necessity——the site has 6.6 million active listings—but it also leads to bans over matters as trivial as a decade-old misdemeanor related to an unleashed dog.
Airbnb has said that it understands the system is imperfect, and employs an appeals process for people who feel they have been unfairly banned. But the process is often limited and frustrating to banned users, according to conversations Motherboard has had with banned users. The bans by association underscore the difficulty (and perhaps impossibility) of keeping dangerous parties completely out of Airbnb hosts’ homes without slighting associated users who feel their own bans are unjustified. In January, for example, Airbnb reached out to a user named Amanda to inform her that the company had banned her from the platform because the account was “closely associated with a person who isn’t allowed to use Airbnb,” according to messages reviewed by Motherboard.
The company then said the user could appeal the ban. “If we find that you are not closely associated with a person who isn’t allowed to use Airbnb, we may restore your account. If not, your account will remain removed from Airbnb,” the company said.Amanda appealed the ban, saying she was trying to book an Airbnb in order to attend a cheer competition, which her friend’s daughter was participating in. Two days later, the company said it had completed the review and was upholding the ban to “safeguard our community” after “careful consideration.” The company then said that it would not “be able to offer additional support on this case at this time.”
When booking the house, Amanda had used her boyfriend’s credit card, she told Motherboard. While she does not have a criminal record, her boyfriend does, she said, telling Motherboard it was “a white collar charge,” though she did not go into specifics. Amanda added that she and her boyfriend do not share an address or bank account.After Motherboard reached out to Airbnb about Amanda’s case, the company reached out to the boyfriend—not Amanda—to see if he would like to appeal the company’s decision. The company told Motherboard that if he was reinstated, she would be as well. But if the ruling stood, Amanda would remain banned, meaning her fate was entirely tied to that of her boyfriend. In its statement, Airbnb told Motherboard that such bans by association can be enacted due to any “safety-related” reason and are not limited to situations in which an individual has been banned as a result of the background check process. “For example, if someone is removed for a serious safety incident during an Airbnb reservation and we need to remove them and cancel their future reservations, and we then find that someone re-books the exact same future reservation with the same credit card number, we will remove the second account,” the company said. The need to complete background checks and occasionally ban users without warning shows the complicated nature of Airbnb’s business, which creates a market between homeowners (and, increasingly, professionalized short-term rental investors) who would like to rent out some or all of their property and guests who need a place to stay. In that transaction, the guests are the technical customers, but it is just as critical to Airbnb’s success that homeowners feel comfortable enough handing over the keys of their homes to strangers.The bans by association, however, further highlight that there is no perfect system for such a large platform. If Airbnb performed no safety checks, it would perhaps risk putting its guests and hosts in potential danger. But as Amanda’s case shows, there are legitimate questions about how far is too far.