How Airbnb Plans To Fix Its Racial-Bias Problem

How Airbnb Plans To Fix Its Racial-Bias Problem

Airbnb formed a review committee after complaints of racial discrimination by hosts.

In response to growing complaints of racial bias among its users, the home-sharing company Airbnb will beef up its nondiscrimination policy, do more to diversify its own workforce and offer implicit bias training to its hosts, according to a report released on Thursday after a three-month review by the company.

But Airbnb will not, for now, concede to critics one of their chief requests - abandoning the user photos that make it easy to identify online who is a minority.

"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."

By the end of the year, the company is vowing instead to experiment with reducing the visibility of photos on booking pages and promoting in their place other reputation information, such as reviews. The issue has been a thorny one for the company, which argues that photos - as well as real names - are necessary to create trust and ensure safety on a platform where millions of strangers rent space in each others' private homes.

Academic research has found discrimination among Airbnb hosts against guests with black-sounding names. And critics have argued that the design of the site - with such information prominently displayed - may more easily enable discrimination, making the company responsible for the behavior of users acting even on implicit biases. Airbnb's own research, the company acknowledges in the report, "generally confirmed public reports that minorities struggle more than others to book a listing."

Among the other promised changes, Airbnb will create a new feature automatically blocking calendar dates once a host rejects a potential guest. That would potentially prevent hosts from denying a user based on their race, only to offer the rental for the same dates to someone else, as has occurred according to some of the reported complaints.

Under another new policy, the company also vows to immediately find alternative, comparable accommodations for guests who have experienced discrimination, even if that means pointing them to a traditional hotel room when no other Airbnb options exist and potentially subsidizing the price difference.

In the revised nondiscrimination policy, the company is more explicit that hosts cannot decline guests based on their color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status. Nor can they post any statements suggesting a preference or discouraging any group. (If a host is sharing their living space, however, they can request guests of the same gender.) Airbnb will then remind users of the policy at points throughout the booking process, as experts on implicit bias recommended.

Starting Nov. 1, users will also be asked to agree to this commitment before they book a listing or rent their space:

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.

The company acknowledged that awareness of its existing nondiscrimination policy was "extremely limited." And the report concludes that Airbnb has been slow to address complaints of discrimination because of its own lack of diversity. (The company says less than 10 percent of its U.S. employees are from "underrepresented populations.")

Critics of a company that has threatened the hotel industry and riled some politicians had latched onto Airbnb's racial woes as further grounds to attack the company, and they will probably dismiss these changes as more window-dressing. But it will become clearer with time whether the company's own diversity numbers increase and complaints of bias decline as a result.

"There have been too many unacceptable instances of people being discriminated against on the Airbnb platform," the report concludes, "because of who they are or what they look like."

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