It’s encouraging to see Airbnb tackle this issue head on and try to effect some real changes but we wonder if the company is taking enough steps to make a major difference.
On Sept. 8, months after battling intense scrutiny and criticism of its efforts to combat discrimination on its online platform, Airbnb announced several changes to its policies and platform in an attempt to make it more difficult for hosts to discriminate against guests on the basis of race, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, or age.
The San Francisco-based company released the details of its new policies in a 32-page report authored by Laura W. Murphy, the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office in Washington, D.C. and a former director of tourism for the District of Columbia.
In the report, Murphy outlines the company’s new nondiscrimination policy, which is “stronger than what is required by law” as well as a new Airbnb Community Commitment, which all users must agree to beginning Nov. 1.
It clearly states: “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.”
Responding to Criticism
The report was a direct response to issues and incidents of discrimination that have been noted as taking place on the platform as early as 2014. Researchers at the Harvard Business School highlighted the possibility of racial discrimination against hosts by guests using the platform in 2014, and their study found that hosts who were not African American could charge 12 percent more, on average, with everything else being equal, than those who were African American.
Those same researchers also released a study in December 2015 that showed 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.
Numerous cases of discrimination against Airbnb guests from hosts have been documented and publicized this year alone. A Virginia man, Gregory Selden, 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.
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has said fighting discrimination is the company’s biggest challenge, and he also admitted the company was slow to respond to the issue.
In an email to Airbnb users and also online, Chesky wrote: “Unfortunately, we have been slow to address these problems, and for this I am sorry. I take responsibility for any pain or frustration this has caused members of our community. We will not only make this right; we will work to set an example that other companies can follow.”
Since hiring Murphy in June, Chesky has also enlisted the help of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to help craft the company’s new policy. Airbnb also asked Harvard University public policy professor Robert W. Livingston to help the company improve its unconscious bias training program.
Changes to the Platform
Earlier this year, Skift examined the possible technology and design solutions Airbnb might implement in an effort to fight discrimination and bias. They included the proliferation of community-specific platforms; more inclusive marketing strategies; the use of technology to identify patterns of discriminatory behavior; increased usage of Instant Booking; and the elimination of guest and host photos prior to booking.
According to the report, it appears Airbnb has heeded some of those suggestions, but not all.
The company said it plans to grow its Instant Booking feature, which allows guests to immediately book a listing without host approval, to 1 million listings by January 2017. However, even with the Instant Booking feature enabled, an individual host may cancel an Instant Booking request up to three times a year but he/she must also provide a valid reason for the cancellation.
Murphy also wrote that Airbnb will “experiment with reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process and enhancing other parts of hosts’ and guests’ profiles with objective information.”
Additionally, Airbnb has put together a full-time product team of engineers, data scientists, researchers, and designers who will be solely responsible for fighting bias and promoting diversity.
The company said it has also “developed new tools to quickly and reliably route concerns regarding discrimination.”
For example, if a guest is informed by a host that his requested dates are unavailable — even though the dates were advertised as being vacant — Airbnb will automatically block out those dates for any other requests that come up for those same dates, ensuring the host cannot make the listing available to other guests of a different race, etc. This feature is set to be implemented in the first half of 2017.
Guests are also now able to flag a message on the platform as being discriminatory or comprising hate speech, and that feature will be expanded and enhanced by January.
A new Open Doors policy will also ensure that any guests who are discriminated against and unable to make a booking will find a place to stay with 24/7 customer service support.
Airbnb is also offering new training for hosts to fight bias, and is instituting a new Diversity Rule policy to ensure senior-level positions include women and underrepresented backgrounds. The company also says is will “substantially expand efforts to recruit new employees from historically Black colleges and universities, schools with large Latino populations, and schools with large female populations in science and engineering.”
The new nondiscrimination policy has specific guidance for hosts in the U.S., and the company said it plans to release guidance for international jurisdictions going forward.
Notably, the policy seems to address issues of safety and concern for female hosts, saying any host, male or female, who shares living spaces (bathroom, kitchen, or other common areas) with guests can decline to rent to a guest based on gender. Addressing issues related to safety and security for solo female hosts and guests is something the platform has attempted to address.
The policy also says hosts cannot “refuse to provide reasonable accommodations, including flexibility, when guests with disabilities request modest changes in your house rules.” These changes might include allowing an assistance animal, or using a parking space near the unit.
Exceptions for personal preferences are also noted, including the exclusion of pets or the decision to decline to rent to guests who smoke.
But Is This Enough?
Skift reached out to Ben Edelman, one of the Harvard Business School researchers who worked on both the 2014 and 2015 studies that demonstrated the presence of discrimination on the Airbnb platform.
Edelman said, “I am not convinced that these changes will fix the problem of discrimination at Airbnb” and added, “The discussion of photos was particularly unconvincing.”
He said that Airbnb’s claim that profile photos are “an important security feature” and are necessary is “irrelevant to the question at hand.” Edelman said, “Surely they [hosts and guests] should get to see each others’ photos after the booking is confirmed. Does a host need to see these photos when considering a guest’s request? Removing photos would be a natural and easy first step towards reducing discrimination.”
Rohan Gilkes, the founder of home-sharing platform Innclusive, which is slated to launch by next month, said he also thinks Airbnb’s policy regarding profile photos isn’t enough to fend off discrimination.
“I feel like it’s one step forward, but I don’t think it’s enough,” Gilkes said. “One thing they were very, very clear about saying is how photos are being treated, how they want to diminish the use of photos in the decision-making process, but they made it clear that they are not going to remove photos. I feel, and this has been backed up by some of the statistical data coming from several studies, that unless photos are removed, people will use them to inject their bias in decision making around whether someone can stay with them or not. The fact that they are still going to keep photos kind of holds back everything else they are doing.”
Gilkes also pointed out that Airbnb’s report did not at all mention the removal of names in the decision-making process, which was the focus of Edelman’s most recent research on the platform.
“The Harvard study was based on a person’s name,” Gilkes noted. “If your name is Khaleed Muhammad or something like that, you will have some issues. This is something they did not mention at all in the report. You have to remove both the photos and the names to make an impact on what’s happening on the platform.”
Gilkes was also skeptical about Airbnb’s ability to provide appropriate customer service as part of its new Open Doors policy, given his own experiences with the platform, which ultimately led to his decision to create Innclusive.
“Right now, on paper I think it’s [the Open Doors policy] a wonderful idea,” he said. “Now if you look at their execution on customer service, it’s inarguably poor. If you look at their Facebook page, it’s hard for people to reach support or get a telephone number. Will they be able to execute and provide good customer service around this when they haven’t been able to do that for easier issues? I’m not convinced, but I’m open minded.”
Gilkes however, did applaud Airbnb’s new tech feature which automatically blocks out dates for listings when a host has told a guest that those dates are no longer available. “That’s a solid, no-brainer idea and something we put into our platform from the beginning.”
And while he’s happy Airbnb noted it is working to improve the diversity of its executive-level team, Gilkes wondered why Airbnb isn’t applying that same policy in company-wide hiring outside of the executive team.
“They have been hovering at about two to three percent African Americans on their staff for the last eight years,” he said. “I think that what they brought up today is how they’re going to address hiring more women and more people of color on their executive level so that’s something they are aware of. I want to give them credit for that. But they also need to come up with something that’s as clear and aggressive about changing the holistic makeup of the company. This is only a fix at the executive level, when the problem runs through all levels of the company.”
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Photo credit: Airbnb's newest report lays out the company's new policies and tech features designed to address issues of discrimination and bias. Airbnb