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Figuring out the Tech Solutions to Airbnb’s Racial Discrimination Problem

Skift Take

Discrimination isn’t a problem limited to peer-to-peer platforms like Airbnb, and it’s not a problem with the sharing economy itself. It’s a problem that has to do with human behavior — how we interact with one another, whether online or in real life — and one that travel brands need to offer more than lip service to improve.

— Deanna Ting

Airbnb is facing a lot of challenges these days, whether they be regulatory clampdowns in major cities like New York City and Berlin to the growing awareness of the potentially discriminatory pitfalls of its peer-to-peer platform.

The latter has spawned an entire movement (just search for the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack on Twitter), given birth to a class-action lawsuit, and has spurred other entrepreneurs to launch their own versions of Airbnb that cater more to specific communities.

Recent concerns about racist, discriminatory behavior from Airbnb’s hosts were also serious enough to prompt Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky to address them directly at Airbnb’s annual OpenAir tech conference in San Francisco on June 8.

Opening the conference, Chesky said, “There’s been a lot of news about prejudice and bias on our platform, and this is a huge issue for us.” He added, “We have zero tolerance for it and we will take swift action.” Chesky also pledged to work on resolving these issues, and asked for the tech community’s help in coming up with solutions.

“In the next months, we will be revisiting the design of our site from end to end to see how we can create a more inclusive platform. We’re open to ideas. It’s a really, really hard problem and we need help solving it. We want to move this forward. I myself have engaged with people who have been victims of discrimination on the platform. We take this seriously,” he said.

In a recent New York Times article, the company also said it would be making an announcement about its preliminary efforts to address discrimination on its site within the next week, and that it plans to debut a full report with solutions by September.

This isn’t the first time Airbnb has had to address issues of discrimination, bias, or prejudice on its site, however. As far back as 2014, researchers at Harvard Business School noted the possibility of racial discrimination against hosts by guests using the platform. Their study found that hosts who were not African American could charge 12 percent more, on average, with everything else being equal.

More recently, those same researchers discovered that Airbnb guests who had African American-sounding names had a much more difficult time being approved by hosts for reservations than those guests with more white-sounding names, even when all of their other information and messaging was exactly the same.

For one of the Harvard Business School researchers, Ben Edelman, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s most recent comments at Open Air were both surprising and welcome.

“It seemed like a sharp change from what Airbnb has said previously — that discrimination is a societal problem and you can’t really expect it not to occur on Airbnb, so ‘move along, folks,'” said Edelman. “He seemed to recognize that Airbnb has a lot of work to do, so kudos. I’m glad he sees it the way I see it. I just wonder if action will follow the talk.”

That’s exactly what everyone else is wondering, too. Are there any ways in which Airbnb can tackle this problem, whether through technology or the way they design the site? Or is this just a case of some humans behaving badly, and a call for Airbnb to just be more vigilant about removing bad actors from their platform? Or is this simply the result of a major design fault?

The Cost of Trust

The fulcrum upon which the entire Airbnb platform was designed around is encapsulated in one word: trust. Trust is the reason why there are profiles with names and photos for both hosts and guests, why there’s a messaging component between hosts and guests, and why hosts can ultimately choose whom to rent to (and whom not to rent to). As Airbnb’s site states, “anonymity erodes trust.”

Trust is essential for alternative accommodations platforms like Airbnb to work in the sharing economy. If hosts don’t trust guests, or guests don’t trust hosts on the platform, it’s highly unlikely that complete strangers will want to stay in each other’s homes.

For Airbnb, instilling a sense of trust among its community of hosts and guests means publicly divulging certain types of information, like profile photos, first names, where you live, what you like to do, or where you went to school. Airbnb will also verify profiles through social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, or via American Express, or by providing Airbnb with a photo of an official ID.

Similarly, on HomeAway, travelers and owners also fill out online profiles, with similar information, and they can also verify their profiles using Facebook and email addresses.

But are these mechanisms enough to ensure trust, or do they make it harder for strangers to trust one another on these alternative accommodations sites?

“We haven’t come up with sophisticated enough ways of facilitating trust through people who do not know each other,” said Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University who’s been studying the sharing economy for several years and recently published a new book on the topic. “With these platforms, your personal world is not just personal anymore. The spare seat in your car is something that can be allocated to someone, analogous to buying a train ticket, although in your mind, it’s still a little of the personal that’s involved.”

That blurring between what’s personal and what’s professional (or transactional) is a big reason why it can be difficult to find easy solutions for preventing discrimination on platforms like Airbnb. For example, Sundararajan proposed, if a single female Airbnb host is only comfortable with renting out her spare bedroom to female guests, is she being blatantly discriminatory against men? Or can it be argued that it is reasonable for her to make that decision, since it may relate to her sense of personal safety?

“What’s the right line between the individual’s own rights over their personal space and their collective responsibility to society, given that this is now a commercial operation?,” Sundararajan asked. “I don’t have a good answer for that.”

Edelman, on the other hand, feels that if a host is willing to list his or her home on Airbnb, he or she needs to be willing to accept whomever wants to book a stay in their listing as long as that person has been verified by Airbnb. “If a host is not inclined to trust an Airbnb guest and not to trust Airbnb’s verifications, maybe they shouldn’t run a hotel out of their apartment,” he said. “If you want to run a hotel out your apartment, you need to figure there are some rules that go around with that.”

With this, there is also the matter of how much of Airbnb and its peers’ business is represented by similar use cases. What proportion of Airbnb’s more than 200 million listings are actually comprised of single female hosts renting out their spare bedrooms? In major markets like Miami, Los Angeles, and New York, for example, there are concerns that a growing number of hosts using the platforms aren’t just renting out their spare bedrooms, but are more like commercial operators renting out whole homes on a full-time basis. If the commercial activity on the site grows enough to the point where a majority of listings are more commercial in nature than “shared,” it might be argued that the platform should adhere to stricter policies regarding discrimination, just as commercial businesses like hotels do.

It’s worth noting that in the U.S., the hospitality industry has long been a source of both conflict and landmark legal decisions regarding discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited against discrimination or segregation in places of public accommodation, but the meaning of “public” was fought over for years as some hotels and other businesses argued that they had the right to decide who stayed in their rooms or ate in their restaurants.

As the sharing economy blurs the lines between private homes and public spaces, we’re seeing similar debates being played out yet again.

What Airbnb Can Learn From Online Dating Sites

If you really think about alternative accommodations platforms’ usage of online profiles — and the ways in which they inform both parties involved — it’s not all that different from how online dating sites work.

Choosing whom to date is a deeply personal choice, as is choosing whom to invite into your home. And as data from online dating sites like OkCupid has shown, racial bias is real.

In 2014, OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder published a book, called Dataclysm, that analyzed data from some 25 million online dating accounts to see if there was any racial bias. What Rudder found, essentially, was that when it comes to online dating, “black people and Asian men get the short shrift.”

Does that mean all the people on these sites are inherently racist in some way? No, but people do have racial preferences when it comes to whom they chose to date (whether they choose to admit to, or not). And, as Edelman and his co-author Michael Luca have found, people also have racial preferences when it comes to whom they choose to host and/or stay with on Airbnb.

Obviously, an online dating site can’t force someone to go out on a date with someone (and we should probably be thankful for that). But one way in which these sites have attempted to encourage inclusivity is to launch community-specific sites. Users of these particular sites are pre-informed about the communities to whom they appeal to, thereby potentially lessening the chance for discrimination on the platform to occur.

This explains the proliferation of dating sites that cater specifically to certain groups or interests. The Match Group, parent company to sites like Tinder, OkCupid, and Match.com, for example, has more than 45 different brands alone that include: BlackPeopleMeet, SingleParentMeet, RepublicanPeopleMeet, JPeopleMeet.com, and much more.

This is also a strategy employed by sites like Paris-based Misterb&b and the soon-to-launch Noirbnb and Innclusive (formerly known as Noirebnb).

Misterb&b, Noirbnb, and Innclusive

Back in 2013, Misterb&b founder Matthieu Jost decided to launch his own home-sharing platform that would cater specifically to gay community. The site debuted three years after Jost and his partner personally faced discrimination from a host in Barcelona who was not comfortable with hosting two gay men in her apartment. Jost wouldn’t disclose which home-sharing platform he had used to book that room in Barcelona, only to say it was a “mainstream short-term rental site.”

“We discovered this host was not comfortable hosting two gay men in her apartment,” he said. “Our room was next to hers, and you can imagine how uncomfortable we felt at the time. All weekend we tried to avoid each other. I didn’t want that experience to happen anymore to both of us, and to our entire community.”

Three years after debuting Misterb&b, the site now has more than 60,000 listings in more than 135 countries around the world. Its platform is very similar in its setup to other alternative accommodations platforms — guests and hosts fill out profiles — but the biggest difference is that both guests and hosts sign onto the platform knowing this is a gay-friendly site.

“When you host on Misterb&b, you know you will be welcoming gay men,” Jost said. “This was very important to us. There’s no doubt about our community. Everyone can list on our website but the only thing is you have to be gay-friendly. People trust us because they trust our brand and they trust our business proposition. We are for everyone in the LGBT community to use and feel safe and welcome.”

Likewise, the founders of Noirbnb and Innclusive hope that by launching their own home-sharing sites that cater to the African-American community and people of color, they will be creating platforms that will make everyone — hosts and guests included — feel safer, trust one another, and avoid encounters of racial discrimination like the ones they’ve personally encountered while using Airbnb.

Last October, Noirbnb co-founders Ronnia Cherry and Stefan Grant were staying in an Airbnb in Atlanta, attending a music festival, when the neighbors “saw a lot of black people in the house and called the cops on us,” Grant described. Immediately after the incident, Cherry and Grant notified Airbnb and they were both flown out to Airbnb’s headquarters in San Francisco in November. There, they presented their idea for Noirbnb.

“We pushed the idea to Airbnb and they flew us out there to give them the full pitch for the idea,” Grant said. “The media attention regarding race had calmed down, but we kind of foresaw future issues. They didn’t decide to move forward with it.”

In December 2015, after Edelman and Luca’s second paper about discrimination on Airbnb was published, Cherry and Grant approached Airbnb once more. “After the Harvard study [came out], we talked to them. After that, they weren’t really trying to tackle the problem head on,” Grant said. “We predicted that more racial issues would happen. Now they can’t fix this with PR. The press forced them to really focus on the issue, and not just brush it under the table.”

After Airbnb passed on their idea, Cherry and Grant began developing Noirbnb, purchased the domain in January, and are hoping to launch the business soon. “Everything that we would have wanted Airbnb to do, we’re pretty much doing it all ourselves. We have been speaking to them for eight months about what we could do, what they could do,” Grant explained. “There’s really not much else to say,” Cherry added.

“There’s only so much you can ask from someone. We are really proactive. If you want to see the change, you gotta be the change you want to see, and to create this culture of inclusion,” Grant said.

In May, Innclusive founder Rohan Gilkes attempted to book a house on Airbnb in Idaho for two separate sets of dates, but was told by the host that both sets of dates he had requested were unavailable. But when Gilkes asked a white friend to try to book those same dates, the house “became magically available right away.” He also later learned that his host lived in a different state. “It really is like a hotel, up on the mountain side. There wouldn’t be neighbors. Obviously, I could pay for it and I requested it and so on.”

Gilkes wrote about his experience on Medium after notifying Airbnb about what happened.

“Airbnb’s response felt kind of dismissive,” Gilkes said. “They were basically trying to say that unless it was something super blatant, there really was nothing they could do, but they would forward my story to another department.” Gilkes said he waited two weeks for a response but never received one from Airbnb until he decided to post his story on Medium.

He said that when he did hear from Airbnb, “they were super nice … they apologized. They tried to offer me a free stay to give me the opportunity to give my input on what they could do better.” He also said that while he understands how difficult it can be to decipher what’s prejudice on the site, he wishes Airbnb responded in a more thoughtful, timely manner.

“At least I felt like they had one thing within their power — how they respond to people that report these cases, how they investigate it, if they respond at all, how they appraise what’s happening on other platforms,” he said.

The response Gilkes received after posting his story —more than 2,000 emails alone — prompted him to launch his own home-sharing platform. “I realized it wasn’t just black people who have experienced this,” Gilkes said. “There are people who felt prejudiced because of their sexual orientation, or because they have Muslim-sounding names. This thing is systemic. I’m seeing this everywhere. This is a real problem.” He hopes to launch Innclusive by the fall.

Can Marketing Make a Difference?

The founders of both Innclusive and Noirbnb are betting that branding and marketing will effectively convey their respective messages, and help them to attract people who may otherwise feel discriminated on bigger platforms like Airbnb.

“The reason we think our platform will work, even beyond the technology, is the branding,” Gilkes explained. “A large part of our target audience are people who are marginalized and people who who are discriminated against. These are people we embrace. Based on how we market and how we brand the site, I think people who are discriminatory will not even sign onto the platform in the first place.”

“It’s important for different markets and demographics to have platform that are welcoming and inclusive, and I couldn’t tell anyone else what they should do,” Grant said. “No one can cater to black travelers better than us.”

It’s interesting that Gilkes brought up marketing as a way in which his platform will stand apart from Airbnb, especially when, under CMO Jonathan Mildenhall’s stewardship, the brand has marketed itself as a worldwide community that allows people to “belong anywhere.” Just last week, Airbnb released a video, “Let’s All #HostWithPride,” spotlighting the struggles that gay and transgender travelers face. It’s an incredibly moving piece, and one that reiterates the company’s brand voice as being welcoming, inclusive, and community-oriented, as well as devoid of any messages that allude to the company’s public policy issues.

But if you ask Gilkes if Airbnb has really marketed itself as being a diverse community, he would disagree. “For the longest time, their home page was devoid of black people,” he noted. “If you go way back on the way back machine, you’ll see them post these marketing videos that are three minutes long but with no black people.”

That’s no longer the case, as Airbnb’s marketing materials now push an image of a broad and diverse set of users.

Beyond marketing tactics, however, it’s clear there’s a big difference between marketing messages, and the complexities of human behavior, something Gilkes also acknowledges.

“There are all types of reasons why people discriminate against other people, whether because of gender, physical disabilities, race, etc.,” he said. “There’s no magic ball. You just have to make sure that we really make that we communicate what we are trying to do, and to attract people who are going to feel safe on our platform and not attract the people who are not good on our platform.”

Sundararajan, however, thinks that creating community-specific platforms isn’t necessarily the best solution for addressing problems of discrimination and bias because the problem isn’t rooted in the platforms themselves — it’s the people using them.

“If you can invent a platform that sort of educates people to be better human beings, then maybe that would work,” he said. “Eventually, though, we are left with the equation that we have, and we have to use the law and technology to minimize this bad behavior.”

Possible Tech Solutions

While it’s obvious that not everything can be magically solved by an algorithm, especially a problem as complex as human bias or prejudice, it’s possible there are some technology solutions that can at least attempt to decrease the likelihood of discrimination taking place on short-term rental sites.

Sundararajan hypothesized the creation of technology that might be able to detect patterns of discriminatory behavior among hosts, similar to how credit card companies track and detect fraudulent activity by observing patterns of credit card usage. “Perhaps we can use machine learning and technology to detect unusual patterns of behavior, like credit card patterns of behavior,” he explained. So, for example, if a host repeatedly denies booking requests from African-American users, perhaps Airbnb could note this and contact the host to try to see if there’s a real problem with racial discrimination.

For this to work, however, Sundararajan thinks it’s crucial for the sharing economy platforms to take the responsibility for noting this bad behavior, and mining their own data to do so. They shouldn’t be using the argument that they are not responsible for whatever activity takes place on their platforms.

He presented, for example, the content that’s found on YouTube. “If there’s content on YouTube that infringes on copyright, we’ve come up with a solution that YouTube isn’t held liable for the copyright infringement, but if they are informed about it, they have to act on it,” Sundararajan said. “Airbnb shouldn’t be held liable for bad actors on its platform, but it needs to take corrective action on blocking them on the platform, and they have the information to do it.”

“We have delegated the responsibility of detecting fraud to the credit card companies and they have spent the last 20 years on machine learning to detect fraud on a pattern of purchase behavior,” he said. “My hope is we will start to see similar methods developed by the platforms like Uber, Lyft, and maybe Airbnb.” He later added, “We need to make them [the platforms] part of the solution.”

When asked if they were developing specific tech solutions for preventing or lessening the likelihood of discrimination or racial bias on their platforms, the founders of Noirbnb said they couldn’t divulge any specifics about their platform’s tech features.

Innclusive’s Gilkes, however, said that he was designing his site to employ a feature that some Airbnb hosts have already opted for — essentially what’s known as Instant Booking on Airbnb. “You can’t switch your availability off and on based on who is requesting the stay,” he explained. “Your availability has to be standard for everybody.” Innclusive will still employ the usage of profile photos, and regular booking (where hosts approve guests), too, but Gilkes said, “I do feel we will bring an additional sensitivity to be layered on to this. We can see cancellations, declines, and changes of availability, and actually use that data and look for patterns and build this into our platform from the ground up.”

Changing How Trust Works on the Platform

Edelman also thinks the platforms can be better designed to prevent discrimination, and that Instant Booking is a start, but it’s not enough just yet.

“It’s an alternative confirmation system where none of the discrimination can happen rapidly. Guests just press ‘book’ and that’s that,” Edelman said. “But hosts can cancel three Instant Bookings per calendar year — they can discriminate three times a year, and they can cancel even after the guest is confirmed. It’s sort of your worst nightmare, in fact.” According to Airbnb, however, hosts who cancel Instant Bookings must give the company a specific reason for their cancellations.

Instead, Edelman thinks Airbnb and other alternative accommodation sites should eliminate the need for profile photos or names to be divulged prior to booking, and he’s made his suggestions clear to Airbnb. “Airbnb hasn’t been receptive to those suggestions,” he noted.

“It’s perfectly sufficient to see that this guest has stayed at an Airbnb for so many times and has this kind of average rating,” Edelman said. “Their credit card should be on file and pre-charged. There should be validation or verification of their social network profiles. Once you know all of that, what do you care about their face or name?”

He added, “Airbnb said that hosts like to see guests’ photos, which is fine, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. If all men want to see flight attendants in skimpy outfits like they did back in the day, does that mean all flight attendants have to wear skimpy outfits? As a society, we find that to be unacceptable, even if customers genuinely preferred it.”

Edelman said, rather bluntly, “If you create a massive machine that is used for discrimination, I just don’t think people in the 21st century will tolerate it.”

Note: Skift reached out to Airbnb for comment on this story; the company declined to be interviewed, but noted that they are taking this matter seriously. Skift also requested comment from HomeAway and FlipKey and received no comment. 

Tags: airbnb, homeaway

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