Can Airbnb’s New Fixes Prevent Racism?

Airbnb just released a new set of rules to fight racial profiling on its platform.

by Sarah Emerson
Sep 10 2016, 1:00pm

Image: Airbnb

A few months ago, Airbnb came under fire for perpetuating discriminatory, often racist, biases against minority users. Yesterday, Airbnb announced a suite of policy changes meant to address the racial bias and create "a world where anyone can belong anywhere."

The new rules and guidelines are a response to the fact that many black people are systematically profiled by hosts based on qualities such as their names or skin color. Last year, an outside review by three Harvard researchers discovered that people with "distinctly African American names" are 16 percent less likely to be accepted as guests than users with white-sounding names.

Airbnb's 32-page report was written by Laura W. Murphy, a former director at the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, who was enlisted by the company this spring to help make the platform a more inclusive place. Also brought on as outside counsel was former US attorney general Eric Holder.

One of the biggest additions to Airbnb's operations is its Open Doors policy, which allows guests to report instances of discrimination and receive customer service help to find new accommodations. Another new feature, to be rolled out in 2017, will prevent hosts from selectively rejecting users on the basis of availability. For example, if someone wants to reserve a home for a week in November, the host cannot turn them down by saying the home is already taken that week, and proceed to give it to another user.

Other updates include a reworded Airbnb commitment that users must agree to before accessing the platform. By January 1, 2017, the company hopes to offer 1 million listings that are instantly bookable. And internally, Airbnb alleges it will consider more minority and women candidates for senior-level positions, though nothing was mentioned about actually committing to hiring them. According to the company's last equal opportunity filing, 63 percent of its US staff are white, 22.3 percent are Asian, 7.1 percent are Hispanic, and just three percent are black.

From a bird's-eye view, Airbnb's new policies are hopeful in a way you'd expect from a company that says "people are fundamentally good and every community is a place where you can belong." Most of us would like to believe there's a technological fix for racism, and that maybe Airbnb can find it. But so long as the company relies on the sharing economy—that unregulated gray area where people are the commodity—its users' biases will be inherent to its service, whether Airbnb wants to change the world or not.

Read more: The Loud Fight Against Silicon Valley's Quiet Racism

Leadership plays a crucial role too. Airbnb co-founder and CEO, Brian Chesky, once made the excuse that his company failed to manage racism on the platform because "we were so focused on the notion of trust and keeping people safe," and "we took our eye off the ball." Meanwhile, numerous users published infuriating accounts of being denied accommodation for being black. Airbnb is now facing a class-action discrimination suit, filed by Gregory Selden, who was racially profiled by a host this year, for allegedly violating civil rights laws.

Airbnb claims to have assembled a team of a dozen full-time employees to field and identify racism on the platform. A spokesperson for the company told me that staff have "worked to develop and implement technology that rapidly identifies cases of reported discrimination," and that cases of discrimination will be immediately reported to specialists.

When asked if hosts will be permanently banned if found guilty of racial profiling, the spokesperson said "yes." They also alleged that "technological tools" will prevent banned users from creating new profiles under different information or listings.

Since the company has a poor record of hiring non-white employees in the US, I also asked what percentage of Airbnb's anti-discrimination task force are non-white. I didn't receive a response. When I asked for examples of how staff will evaluate more nuanced forms of racism, such as deliberately giving black people negative reviews or ignoring their private message requests, I was not given a direct answer, and was referred back to the report.

As Murphy stressed in her remarks, these are just the first steps toward fighting discrimination on Airbnb. Until these new policy updates are tested and reviewed, it's too soon to declare whether they actually worked. But so far, even tech's loudest voices haven't been able to overpower its quiet yet pervasive racism.

Unless Airbnb is ready to overturn the economy that enables it to thrive, we should continue to question whether a single company can, and wants to, fight for our rights.

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