While kudos should be rightly given to Airbnb for wanting to take a step toward fighting discrimination and bias on its platform, there don't seem to be many changes on its site that would make those efforts even stronger. And the new terms of service make it even clearer that should you be discriminated against on Airbnb by one of its other users, the company does not assume any legal liability.
The policy was originally put forth in Airbnb’s Sept. 8 discrimination report authored by former ACLU director Laura Murphy.
The policy, which is stronger than most U.S. state laws in terms of its inclusion says hosts may not decline or impose any different terms or conditions on a guest based on “race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status.”
However, there is an exception for hosts who share living spaces (bathroom, kitchen, common areas) with a guest. These hosts can choose to decline a guest based on gender. So, for example, if a female host doesn’t feel comfortable renting her spare room to a male Airbnb guest, she does not have to rent to a male.
The new policy also informs hosts that those who “demonstrate a pattern of rejecting guests from a protected class (even while articulating legitimate reasons)” may be suspended by the company from using the site.
While this is a new agreement that all Airbnb hosts must abide by as of Nov. 1, the compact and Airbnb’s newly updated terms of service seem to be the only major changes that are visible on its platform.
Photos Are Still There
In the September report, Airbnb said it would “experiment with reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process and enhancing other parts of hosts’ and guests’ profiles with objective information.”
However, a quick look on the Airbnb site today doesn’t show a major difference in the use of photos of guests and hosts and how they are displayed on the site.
Profile photos, as well as names, were cited in 2015 Harvard research that demonstrated discrimination against guests by hosts, and vice versa with 2014 research that showed discrimination against hosts by guests, based on race.
One of those Harvard researchers, Ben Edelman, strongly urged Airbnb to remove guest profile names and photos prior to booking to reduce the possibility of discrimination or bias influencing a host’s decision to accept a guest.
Instant Booking Is More Visible
Another stated goal from Airbnb in its September report was to have “1 million listings bookable via Instant Book by January 2017.” As the feature name implies, Instant Book is similar to how a guest would book a hotel, however Airbnb hosts can cancel a booking made via Instant Book, with valid reason, up to three times per year.
A quick search on Nov. 1 for listings on Airbnb in specific cities showed the “Instant Book” filter automatically added for most searches, so it’s clear Airbnb is promoting those Instant Book listings much more than those without Instant Book.
But whether or not the company is close to reaching its goal of one million Instant Book listings by January is not clear.
The New Terms of Service
In addition to the new non-discrimination policy, Airbnb also debuted its updated terms of service which hinted at the company’s growth plans for China.
Government regulations in China stipulate that Airbnb will have to share user data with the Chinese government. So, beginning Dec. 7, any Airbnb users who either rent or stay in China will have to sign an additional terms of service agreement that permits Airbnb to share data with the Chinese government.
Additional information about the updated terms of service can be found here.
Airbnb’s general terms of service also serve as a reminder, however, that Airbnb users residing in the U.S. waive their rights to sue Airbnb.
Selden’s suit claimed that Airbnb violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation because “statistical evidence has proven that [Airbnb’s] commercial design disproportionately impacts African American consumers seeking accommodations.” The suit also said that the company’s “pattern and practice of mandating its users to conspicuously identify themselves through the use of head shots or facial photographs, biological names, and other personal identifiers before booking public accommodations” enabled discrimination to take place on its site.
However, because Selden agreed to Airbnb’s terms of service and its arbitration clause, his proposed class-action lawsuit will now go into individual arbitration.
Selden’s case is a reminder that although Airbnb is making efforts to reduce incidences of discrimination and bias from taking place on its platform, it will not assume any legal liability or responsibility should discrimination take place on its site.
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Photo credit: Airbnb today debuted its new non-discrimination policy and updated terms of service. Airbnb