Airbnb enlists civil rights leaders in discrimination fight

Airbnb enlists civil rights leaders in discrimination fight
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Airbnb is enlisting some of the nation’s most prestigious civil rights groups in its effort to defuse a crisis over allegations of racial discrimination on its platform.

Meetings with groups, including the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Urban League, contributed to a report this week that laid out the steps the company is taking to crack down on discrimination.

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“I think that in some respects the experiences of African-American consumers who were sharing the issues that they’d had via social media helped to create a level of intensity that almost demanded that the company respond in a serious way,” said Kristen Clarke, the executive director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“All that said, no, you don’t see this kind of proactive response every day on the part of large companies like this, so I am encouraged by that,” added Clarke, who was part of a meeting with Airbnb executives.

The issue shot into the national spotlight after users shared stories online under the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. They spoke of trying to book rooms, being told that they were not available and later seeing them reserved for the same dates. In North Carolina, an Airbnb host, who was later banned, called a guest a racial slur in a chat conversation.

In response, Airbnb in June announced the hiring of Laura Murphy, previously the top Washington lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Murphy spearheaded the 90-day review that led to Thursday's report detailing the steps the company would take.

Brandi Collins, the media justice director for Color of Change, which had pushed Airbnb to act, said that Murphy’s hire showed that the company understood the gravity of the situation

“That immediately signaled, ‘Ok, they’re serious this time,’” she said. “Because Laura has so much credibility in the civil rights community.”

As the crisis grew, the company also began reaching out to major civil rights organizations to get their input on how to address the problem.

Civil rights groups, including the National Urban League, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Lawyer’s Committee, convened at a June 23 meeting that included Murphy and Chris Lehane, who lead’s Airbnb’s growing political operation.

“I think that they wanted the civil rights groups to know that they were taking the issue seriously, that they recognized that there was a problem and wanted to communicate out a desire to hear and receive input while they worked to figure out what they need to do as a company to address these issues,” Clark said.

Civil rights groups met with the company again in July, according to people involved with the meeting, at the offices of law firm Covington and Burling. Dennis Parker, who leads the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, said that Murphy and Lehane were joined by Airbnb federal policy chief Sarah Bianchi and former Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderFBI director defends agency after Trump attacks: It's an 'honor to represent you' FBI agents fire back at Trump: Saying we're not dedicated is 'simply false' Holder hits back at Trump: The FBI’s reputation is not in 'tatters' MORE, who is a partner at Covington.

“Obviously when the former attorney general and someone who you know express their beliefs that this company is honestly engaging in the issues, that carries some weight,” said Parker.

The meetings with civil rights groups were only one part of the review process. The Thursday report's policy changes will be rolled out over the next few months.

Users will now have to abide by a much more explicit non-discrimination policy, and the company will put more measures in place to enforce the rules. If someone cannot find lodging because of discrimination, the company guarantees it will find them a place to stay.

Clarke said the changes demonstrated that the company “heard us and took our concerns seriously.”

The moves were also praised by Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldConyers resigns amid sexual misconduct allegations Government study shows lack of diversity in tech Black lawmakers give tech sector low marks amid Silicon Valley trip MORE (D-N.C.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and groups that spoke with Airbnb during the review.

Clarke and others said there will still areas where Airbnb could improve. The company will not, for example, fully eliminate photographs from guest profiles, instead opting to downplay their significance, and play up other factors, like reviews.

Airbnb, nonetheless, appears to have navigated the criticisms about bias more effectively than other tech companies that have struggled with questions about race and discrimination.

Twitter has spent years trying to get abuse on its platform, much of which is directed at people of color, under control. Even though executives have long said they acknowledge the social network has a problem, they have struggled to balance a desire to stop harassment with the desire for unfettered speech.

And Google, in an embarrassing mistake, apologized when object recognition software in its Photos application identified black people as gorillas.

But Airbnb isn't out of the hot seat. Some said the company also struggled in the past with how to address discrimination concerns.

Collins said that Color of Change had attended meetings with the company before, raising concerns about possible discrimination, and had been met with a tepid response.

“We’ve been in a lot of meetings in Silicon Valley and you know the difference in those meetings between when you’re getting the run around and it’s about PR versus when it’s about true change,” she said. “And I think early on in those conversations it seemed very clear that it was more about the PR than about making changes."

Sarah Huny Young, the Creative and Technical Director of Noirbnb, a startup that plans to offer home-sharing aimed at the black community, said the company’s steps were good but questioned why it was only now tackling discrimination.

“I just wonder why so many people’s complaints went unanswered for so long,” she said.

Some on social media echoed the sentiment that the company’s response came too late.

And many of the groups involved in the process say that they plan to monitor the firm’s implementation of the policy changes closely.

“You can do whatever you want, you can have all the policies and practices in the world,” said Collins, “but at the end of the day, if black folks and people of color still feel like they’re being discriminated against, still are not experiencing Airbnb’s mission of belonging anywhere, then these policies mean nothing."

On Wednesday, a day before the company released its report to the public, it briefed civil rights groups in Washington on its plans — something it had pledged to do in a previous meeting.

“There had been a promise made,” said Parker, of the ACLU, “and I think that it was meant to show a commitment to continuing involvement with the groups.”