Airbnb cracking down on discrimination

Airbnb cracking down on discrimination
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Airbnb users will now have to agree to a new policy that more explicitly prohibits them from turning away guests because of race, part of the company’s response to allegations of discrimination on the popular lodging platform.

“Airbnb is engaging in frank and sustained conversations about bias on its platform,” said Laura Murphy, the former top lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union who was brought on by the company to review its practices, in a Thursday report that laid out the new policy as well as other measures the company is taking to combat discrimination. 

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“More noteworthily, however, Airbnb is putting in place powerful systemic changes to greatly reduce the opportunity for hosts and guests to engage in conscious or unconscious discriminatory conduct.”

The new nondiscrimination policy forbids turning down a potential guest because of their “race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status.” It also describes in detail how a host must treat an Airbnb user who is disabled and the company’s policies on gender discrimination. 

The policy, designed with the aid of former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderMichigan Republicans sue over US House district lines State courts become battlegrounds in redistricting fights New Hampshire Republicans advance map with substantially redrawn districts MORE, is more detailed than the company’s previous guidance on discrimination. In the past, the rules prohibited “content that promotes discrimination, bigotry, racism, hatred, harassment or harm against any individual or group” and told hosts they needed to follow regulations in the locality where they were based.

Airbnb has also been criticized for not making its nondiscrimination policy a bigger part of the process through which users become hosts and for burying the full text of the policy on its website. In its report, the company said it would start issuing reminders about the nondiscrimination policy to hosts by the end of the year. 

Murphy's report said that awareness of the previous nondiscrimination policy "was extremely limited, and the processes around enforcement were not designed to reflect the enormous growth the platform experienced."

Allegations of discrimination against people of color on the Airbnb platform surfaced earlier this year, as frustrated users gathered around the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. They told stories of being turned down because the host said the room was unavailable — only to see it later booked by a different person. A guest also said that a potential host, who was later banned by the company, used a racial slur in a conversation. 
 
The bias charges came amid a larger conversation about diversity in Silicon Valley, where the workforces at major tech companies are overwhelmingly white and male. Airbnb has said it will take steps to hire a more diverse set of employees.
 
After the stories of discrimination on the platform became more prominent, the company moved to reassure users that it was taking the charges seriously. Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s co-founder and chief executive, has said discrimination is the company’s top challenge.
 
Murphy was brought on to lead the company’s review in June and the inquiry grew to include a number of civil rights groups, researchers and lawyers, including Holder. Murphy named 15 major civil rights and progressive groups that “senior officials” at the company met with, and said that they had also consulted others with a stake in the debate.
 
The review resulted in a slate of measures that the company said will help it combat discrimination among its hosts. Starting in 2017, for example, a host who turns down a customer's request for a room because he or she says it is not available for the dates requested will not be able to rent that room out later for the same dates.

That measure will be coupled with other enforcement enhancements rolling out over the next several months.

The company will also increase the number of rooms available for “instant” booking, instances in which the guest never interacts with the host before renting a space. If a guest cannot book lodging because of discrimination, Airbnb will provide a staff member to find them a place to stay on their trip. A dedicated team of engineers and other experts will also now be solely dedicated to fighting bias on the platform. 

Airbnb will not, however, get rid of profile photos for its guests. Several people have raised the prospect of eliminating the photos hosts see in the hopes that it would make it harder for hosts to discriminate against guests.

“After thoroughly analyzing this issue, I came to believe that Airbnb guests should not be asked or required to hide behind curtains of anonymity when trying to find a place to stay,” said Murphy, while noting that Airbnb “will also experiment with reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process.”

Instead, engineers will find ways to highlight other pieces of information — like reviews — to give hosts a view of their potential guests.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who wrote a letter to Airbnb earlier this year on the issue, said in a statement provided by a company spokesperson that the report is a "commendable step in the right direction and I am confident that Airbnb will continue to take the correct actions to ensure that all consumers are treated as equals when using Airbnb’s services."

Murphy described the work as ongoing and invited feedback on the company's changes.

"I hope everyone who shares my commitment to fairness and equality holds Airbnb accountable, evaluates these measures, and shares their thoughts on how the company and community can continue to make travel fair for all," she said.