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New 32-page report outlines policy and product changes to combat host discrimination
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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.
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Airbnb.com is the “Ebay of space.” The online marketplace allows anyone from private residents to commercial properties to rent out their extra space. The reputation-based site allows for user reviews, verification, and online transactions, for which Airbnb takes a commission. As of June, 2009, the San Francisco-based company has listings in over 1062 cities in 76 countries.
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What is Twitter?
Twitter is an online information network that allows anyone with an account to post 140 character messages, called tweets. It is free to sign up. Users then follow other accounts which they are interested in, and view the tweets of everyone they follow in their "timeline." Most Twitter accounts are public, where one does not need to approve a request to follow, or need to follow back. This makes Twitter a powerful "one to many" broadcast platform where individuals, companies or organizations can reach millions of followers with a single message. Twitter is accessible from Twitter.com, our mobile website, SMS, our mobile apps for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, our iPad application, or 3rd party clients built by outside developers using our API. Twitter accounts can also be private, where the owner must approve follower requests.
Where did the idea for Twitter come from?
Twitter started as an internal project within the podcasting company Odeo. Jack Dorsey, and engineer, had long been interested in status updates. Jack developed the idea, along with Biz Stone, and the first prototype was built in two weeks in March 2006 and launched publicly in August of 2006. The service grew popular very quickly and it soon made sense for Twitter to move outside of Odea. In May 2007, Twitter Inc was founded.
How is Twitter built?
Our engineering team works with a web application framework called Ruby on Rails. We all work on Apple computers except for testing purposes.
We built Twitter using Ruby on Rails because it allows us to work quickly and easily--our team likes to deploy features and changes multiple times per day. Rails provides skeleton code frameworks so we don't have to re-invent the wheel every time we want to add something simple like a sign in form or a picture upload feature.
How do you make money from Twitter?
There are a few ways that Twitter makes money. We have licensing deals in place with Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft's Bing to give them access to the "firehose" - a stream of tweets so that they can more easily incorporate those tweets into their search results.
In Summer 2010, we launched our Promoted Tweets product. Promoted Tweets are a special kind of tweet which appear at the top of search results within Twitter.com, if a company has bid on that keyword. Unlike search results in search engines, Promoted Tweets are normal tweets from a business, so they are as interactive as any other tweet - you can @reply, favorite or retweet a Promoted Tweet.
At the same time, we launched Promoted Trends, where companies can place a trend (clearly marked Promoted) within Twitter's Trending Topics. These are especially effective for upcoming launches, like a movie or album release.
Lastly, we started a Twitter account called @earlybird where we partner with other companies to provide users with a special, short-term deal. For example, we partnered with Virgin America for a special day of fares on Virginamerica.com that were only accessible through the link in the @earlybird tweet.
What's next for Twitter?
We continue to focus on building a product that provides value for users.
We're building Twitter, Inc into a successful, revenue-generating company that attracts world-class talent with an inspiring culture and attitude towards doing business.