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The issue of rooting out members of violent groups from Airbnb and other online platforms — and hotels — is as relevant today as when Airbnb adopted its policy in 2018.

Airbnb said in 2021 that it had been taking “more aggressive action” to ban violent members of dangerous organizations. Its policies followed violent incidents and riots from the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in 2017 to the January 6 attack on the Capitol, during which participants had stayed in Airbnbs.

But a whistleblower, who was an Airbnb contractor from May 2022 to November 2023, claims that Airbnb in 2023 “dissolved” the team whose mission was to identify members of hate groups, NBC News reported last week.

The whistleblower complaint was addressed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, according to NBC News, which obtained it from a Congressional source.

The complaint, according to NBC News, said the team that helped investigate and remove violent extremists faced roadblocks at Airbnb, and that the number of those kicked off the platform ground to a standstill.

Airbnb Says It Bolstered the Team

Airbnb countered that the whistleblower complaint is “baseless,” and that it reinforced the team with several external hires.

“Our policy against dangerous organizations – which was launched in 2018 and prohibits members of violent extremist groups, organized crime networks and hate groups from using Airbnb – continues to be in effect and enforced,” an Airbnb spokesperson said in a statement. “Contrary to these baseless and inaccurate allegations, we have actually expanded the remit of our team to detect and remove users who pose safety risk and this year we’ve hired additional team members to support the enforcement of this policy.”

The spokesperson said its efforts to keep hosts and guests safe is ongoing. “As an online platform that facilitates millions of real-world interactions globally, we have robust policies, processes, and teams across the company focusing on promoting community safety, including preventing unsafe users from using the platform,” the spokesperson said.

More Details About the Whistleblower Complaint

The whistleblower had previously worked as an extremism researcher at the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium. The nonprofit law firm Whistleblower Aid is representing the whistleblower.

In her complaint, according to NBC News, the whistleblower alleged that Airbnb’s change in policy came after criticism that it was targeting conservatives. One flashpoint was when Airbnb banned the parents of Canadian alt-right activist Lauren Southern, an action that Airbnb eventually reversed.

In 2023, according to NBC’s account of the whistleblower complaint, the team’s routine process of ridding the platform of violent individuals became more cumbersome with actions having to be approved by the heads of several departments, including legal, community policy and communications.

“They completely halted our work,” the whistleblower told NBC News.

One of the team’s final tasks, NBC News reported, was to review people who had been banned following the January 6 riot to see if they should be reinstated. NBC News said it’s unclear whether Airbnb reversed any January 6-related bans.

Airbnb’s Side of the Story

Airbnb says its policy is still active, and that it bars violent extremist, organized crime and hate groups. The company says it does background checks on U.S. hosts and guests, and also checks the OFAC list of targeted individuals, groups and other entities.

Airbnb said it recently removed users tied to dangerous organizations, and denied the whistleblower’s allegation that “many members of hate groups have been reinstated.”

What’s Next?

The issue of barring violent extremists from lodging platforms — including hotels — takes on added importance given the upcoming election season.

Airbnb, Booking.com and Expedia Group, as well as major hotel chains, are international in scope and could be subject to stays by people tied to violent extremist organizations in numerous countries.

Asked how it roots out violent extremists, an Expedia Group spokesperson said “we fully cooperate with law enforcement when risks, extremists or otherwise, are identified to protect the safety of our travelers and partners.”

A Booking.com spokesperson said the company works with its compliance and fraud teams and is always trying to spot and investigate “this activity” — meaning bookings from members of extremist groups — on the platform.

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Tags: airbnb, booking.com, congress, dwell, expedia, ftc, hate groups, january 6, online travel newsletter, sec, short-term rentals, whistleblowers

Photo credit: The view from a loft Airbnb in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in April 2019. Mish Mash / Flickr

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