Editor's note: Our 6th Annual Vator Splash LA conference is coming up on October 13 at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica. Speakers include Mark Cuban (one of the hosts of Shark Tank and owner of the Dallas Mavericks); Brian Lee (Founder & CEO, Honest Company); Leura Fine (Founder & CEO, Laurel & Wolf ); Nick Green (Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Thrive Market); Tri Tran (CEO & Co-founder, Munchery); Adam Goldenberg (Founder & CEO, JustFab); Andre Haddad (CEO, Turo); Mike Jones (Founder, Science) and many more. Join us! REGISTER HERE.
Alongside the perennial quarrel over whether short-term rentals make it harder for long-term residents to find places to live, Airbnb had a new major controversy to face this year: its discrimination problem.
The homesharing company today released a 32-page report, Airbnb’s Work To Fight Discrimination and Build Inclusion, to encapsulate the company’s renewed commitment to combating discrimination inherent to the platform. The report—which was spearheaded by Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington D.C. Legislative Office—outlines key findings of a discrimination review as well as policy and product changes to combat discrimination on Airbnb’s platform.
This report, along with Airbnb’s new commitment to policy and product changes, comes after a half-year of accusations that the platform has done little to counteract hosts’ inherent biases.
At the end of 2015, for example, three researchers at Harvard Business School (HBS) released a study concluding that you have an approximately 16 percent lower chance of being accepted by Airbnb hosts if you have a "distinctively" black-sounding name.
“Kristen Sullivan" or "Todd McCarthy”? Accepted!
"Tanisha Jackson" or "Tyrone Robinson”? Denied.
The HBS study was just one of the most reported-on data points in an ongoing conversation that has found Airbnb ill-equipped to pinpoint or deal with hosts who may have been denying potential renters based on race, religion, gender, ethnicity, age, or disability.
In an email to Airbnb hosts and guests, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky wrote:
"Discrimination is the opposite of belonging, and its existence on our platform jeopardizes this core mission. Bias and discrimination have no place on Airbnb, and we have zero tolerance for them. 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."
Some of the changes being instituted by Airbnb are relatively low-tech and, by my measure, not likely to do much. For example, all users must agree to this statement to use the platform:
“We believe that no matter who you are, where you are from, or where you travel, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community. 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.”
Most likely, however, it will be treated like a checkbox next to the terms of service, and no one will read it. But I suppose it gives Airbnb some more legal power to boot discriminatory users from the platform.
Other changes could likely make a difference, however. In the case of the HBS experiment, a host could have denied a room to Tanisha Jackson because the “space isn’t available” and then suddenly approve Todd McCarthy for the same date. By the first half of 2017, Airbnb will implement a feature that makes this impossible, as rejecting a guest for that reason (space not being available for a certain date) will automatically block the date on the host’s calendar.
Airbnb will also give users a better way to flag messages for discrimination or hate speech, something another big tech company has recently implemented.
Based on the scope and extent of the full report from Airbnb, it’s clear the company takes this issue seriously. Whether the policy and product changes will have the desired effect will take some time to see because, as Murphy notes in her introduction, “the sad truth is that racial biases (as well as other forms of bias) are deeply embedded in the culture of our nation. No one company can create an alternative universe where they do not exist.”
Still, it’s promising to see one company trying to make a difference.
Ed. note: Our 6th Annual Vator Splash LA conference is coming up on October 13 at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica. Speakers include Mark Cuban (one of the hosts of Shark Tank and owner of the Dallas Mavericks); Brian Lee (Founder & CEO, Honest Company); Leura Fine (Founder & CEO, Laurel & Wolf ); Nick Green (Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Thrive Market); Tri Tran (CEO & Co-founder, Munchery); Adam Goldenberg (Founder & CEO, JustFab); Andre Haddad (CEO, Turo); Mike Jones (Founder, Science) and many more. Join us! REGISTER HERE.