Skift Take

Hiring Holder is a smart move and it shows Airbnb is finally taking some crucial steps to address discrimination on its platform. The next step? Figuring out if there are some tangible tech or design solutions that can back up the creation of a new anti-discrimination policy.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced the appointment of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to help the alternative accommodations provider “craft a world-class anti-discrimination policy.”

Fighting discrimination is the biggest challenge facing Airbnb, Chesky recently said during a Fortune technology conference.

In a statement released by Airbnb, Holder said, “I’m looking forward to working with Airbnb to develop and implement a world-class anti-discrimination policy. Airbnb is committed to building a community where everyone can belong, no matter who they are or what they look like. I’m eager to help them craft policies that will be the model for companies who share Airbnb’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

Bringing Public Policy and Civil Rights Experts Into the Conversation

In his new role at Airbnb, Holder will work with John Relman, a civil rights lawyer and fair housing expert, Chesky noted. His hiring is just the latest in a string of appointments Airbnb has recently made to address this specific issue.

In June, Airbnb hired Laura Murphy, former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington, D.C. legislative office as an outside advisor. In March, the company hired Peace Corps director David J. King II as its first director of diversity and belonging.

Also in June, Airbnb’s head of public policy, Chris Lehane, along with Murphy, scheduled a meeting with civil rights leaders that included Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League and Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Numerous cases of discrimination against Airbnb guests from hosts have been documented and publicized this year alone. A Virginia man filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the company in May for allegedly being discriminated against by a host because he is black. These instances have spawned a hashtag, #AirbnbWhileBlack, and also led to the creation of other short-term rental platforms such as Innclusive and Noirbnb, both of which cater specifically to people of color.

Discrimination in its many forms is not a new problem for Airbnb. In 2014, researchers at Harvard Business School published a study noting the possibility of racial discrimination against hosts by guests using the platform. It found that hosts who were not African American could charge 12 percent more, on average, with everything else being equal, because guests showed a preference for hosts who weren’t African American. They followed that study with another in 2015 that showed how hosts discriminated against guests.

And sadly, as recent incidents have shown, online discrimination isn’t limited to platforms like Airbnb, either. With today’s announcement, it’s clear that the company, valued at more than $25 billion, is taking this issue very seriously.

Eric Holder’s Record

Holder served as U.S. attorney general from 2009 to 2015, and was the first African-American to hold the position. Throughout his career, he’s been vocal about addressing issues of race, going so far as saying in a February 2009 speech that the U.S. had become a “nation of cowards” for choosing not to confront issues of race. He’s also an active member of Concerned Black Men, a youth mentoring group. In 2014, Time magazine listed Holder as one of “The 100 Most Influential People” for his efforts to “ensure equal justice, even when some try to tip the scale in favor of a select few.”

Holder’s term as Attorney General was marked by some controversies. The biggest involved an investigation into whether he gave false or misleading testimony regarding a controversial operation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It resulted in Holder becoming the first head of the U.S. Justice Department to be held in contempt by the House of Representatives.

However, as Attorney General and throughout his career, Holder has proven himself to be a staunch protector of voters’ rights, gay rights, and minorities’ rights. He left office in April 2015, rejoining his former law firm of Covington and Burling in Washington, D.C.

Airbnb Is Crafting a Comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Strategy

With the appointment of Holder, Murphy, and others, Airbnb is offering a clearer view of its overall strategy for combatting discrimination problems that have long plagued the site.

In addition to hiring civil rights leaders and social justice experts like Holder, Relman, and Murphy to craft a better policy for the company, Airbnb said it will make that policy more available to its users going forward as well.

Earlier this week, BuzzFeed pointed out how difficult it was for hosts to find the company’s anti-discrimination policy on its platform.

In his blog post, Chesky seemed to address that directly, writing: “While we have a policy that prohibits discrimination, we want this policy to be stronger. And we will require everyone who uses our platform to read and certify that they will follow this policy.”

The company also asked Harvard University public policy professor Robert W. Livingston to improve its unconscious bias training program, which Airbnb offered to its hosts who attended last year’s Airbnb Open conference in Paris. This year’s conference takes place in November in Los Angeles.

“Dr. Livingston is nationally recognized for his work in developing comprehensive programs to address implicit racism,” Chesky wrote.

Airbnb is also hiring additional employees who will work, full-time, to detect and address discrimination issues on its platform.

For now, it’s clear Airbnb is being proactive in trying to craft a public policy that takes a firm stance on this issue and echoes the company’s zero tolerance policy for discrimination. Chesky also acknowledged the company’s missteps in not addressing this issue earlier and promised to do more going forward.

“This process isn’t close to being over, but we want to be as transparent as possible along the way because I know we’ve failed on that front previously,” he wrote. “Over the last month, I have been reflecting on why we have been slow to address these problems. Joe, Nate, and I started Airbnb with the best of intentions, but we weren’t fully conscious of this issue when we designed the platform. After speaking to many of you, I have learned that there have at times been a lack of urgency to work on this, and we need to rectify that immediately.”

What’s left to be revealed, however, is how, or if Airbnb will improve the design of its platform to directly address problems of discrimination. Can the company use technology to not only address, but perhaps even prevent discriminatory behavior on its platform? This was a topic Skift recently explored in depth.

Chesky ended his post, imploring people to send him their best ideas for combating discrimination.

“I want us to be smart and innovative and to create new tools to prevent discrimination and bias that can be shared across the industry,” he said. “I hope you’ll help us by sharing your ideas by contacting us at [email protected].”

Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch

Tags: airbnb

Photo credit: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Orlando on July 16, 2013. Airbnb enlisted Holder to help the company draft a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy. 114060 / 114060

Up Next

Loading next stories