Airbnb makes changes to halt racist, discriminatory practices

SAN FRANCISCO – Airbnb announced potentially far-reaching anti-discrimination policies Thursday in response to complaints about hosts' racism against black and other Airbnb guests that came to the fore in the spring, crystalizing around the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.

One change automatically blocks out a host’s reservation calendar for dates they have told a would-be guest are not available. This is to deal with a problem African-Americans and others have described: after requesting a booking, they're told the listing is no longer available, only to find the booking is still available when someone with a profile photo that shows them to be white, or obscures their race, inquires about it.

The new features will be implemented in the first half of 2017, Airbnb said.

The company will also institute a new policy it calls Open Doors. A place to stay on Airbnb will be found for any guest unable to book a listing due to discrimination. A 24/7, personalized, hands-on, specially trained team of Airbnb employees will work with these guests to ensure they find housing.

Airbnb also said it would launch online anti-bias training for hosts beginning November 1. Hosts who have completed the training will be highlighted as the program develops.

The San Francisco start-up had mobilized to address accusations of discrimination after complaints grew traction on social media. In June it hired Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, to investigate the issue. CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky pledged to take "swift action" against bias on the platform.

Some civil rights groups were supportive of Airbnb's efforts.

“Once #AirbnbWhileBlack gave a voice to users who experience discrimination on its platform, Airbnb responded with a speed, transparency, and thoughtfulness that’s atypical among large corporations and Silicon Valley companies in particular,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

A newly rewritten nondiscrimination policy, also posted Thursday, specifically states that Airbnb hosts may not decline a guest based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. The policy will apply to everyone who uses Airbnb as of September 8, 2016.

Airbnb hosts will be reminded of the nondiscrimination policy “at key points during the hosting and booking process” by the end of the year, the report said.

Hosts are still allowed to decline to rent to guests based on gender if they share living space, such as a kitchen, bathroom  or common areas, with guests. For example, a female host could decline to rent out a room in her home to men. They may also decline to rent guests with pets, or to guests who smoke.

The company is also looking to expand its Instant Book program. This allows some listings to be booked immediately, without prior host approval of a specific guest. Airbnb hopes to increase the number of Instant Book listings to one million by January 2017.

Airbnb said it will experiment with reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process, but will continue to use them to illustrate users' profiles.

The practice is rooted in Airbnb's "sharing economy" model. Unlike hotels, which promise a degree of privacy and anonymity, it's branded itself as way of connecting to a place and its people.

But some guests say these have been used to discriminate against them, and there have been calls to do away with photos to minimize this type of bias.

“Study after study shows that people have all sorts of biases that are both explicit and implicit,” and photos can play into those biases, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of a Color of Change, a civil rights group based in New York and Oakland, Calif.

“That’s why people don’t ask you for your photo in job applications anymore,” he said.

It will also work to highlight reviews and social media information about hosts and guests. Reputation systems such as review scores can  increase the trust between dissimilar users, according to research carried out by Airbnb and experts at Stanford University, the company said.

Finally, Airbnb said it had created a team of engineers, data scientists, researchers and designers whose sole purpose is to root out bias on the platform.

Airbnb vowed to work to recruit and hire a more diverse workforce, encourage more minorities to host on Airbnb and increase to 10% the amount of money it spends contracting with suppliers owned by underrepresented minorities, women, veterans, the gay community and businesses in historically underutilized business zones.

While Color of Change is positive about the ways Airbnb has stepped in to deal with this problem, Robinson is taking a wait and see attitude before he pronounces judgement.

“The only metric for success is less discriminatory experiences for black people and people of color,” he said.

USA TODAY


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