After months of controversy surrounding allegations of racial discrimination by Airbnb hosts, the San Francisco-based company will require all users to agree to an anti-discrimination pledge starting tomorrow, November 1. The company has already started to roll out new technological features including smaller profile photos, an expansion of instant bookings and reporting processes that will allow users to document suspected racial and ethnic discrimination.
These changes follow several months of turmoil for the company that started this spring, when a Virginia resident filed a lawsuit claiming that Airbnb’s booking policies violated his civil rights. Last March, after downloading Airbnb’s smartphone app and using his Facebook profile to register quickly for the house sharing site, Gregory Selden’s request to book a room for his travel to Philadelphia was denied. Selden then created two fake profiles that purported to be white men after he realized the room was still available. Both of these profiles, upon sending a booking request, were accepted.
After Selden contacted Airbnb with his concerns, and the company did not reply, he shared his story on social media and launched the hashtag #AirBnbWhileBlack. The result was a rapid firestorm as more African-Americans and citizens of other racial and ethnic minorities reported similar patterns of discriminatory behavior. As a result, house sharing alternatives that promised safe and reliable places to stay emerged. Airbnb then scrambled to hire big names from the political world, including former Attorney General Eric Holder, in an effort to rehabilitate its already hammered image as yet another predatory and aloof Silicon Valley “unicorn.”
Accusations of discrimination by Airbnb hosts are not just unique to the U.S. Earlier this month, a radio station in Stockholm sent inquiries to 200 hosts in three of Sweden’s largest cities on behalf of guest accounts owned by black citizens. Almost half of the requests were denied, and after requests were again sent to those hosts but from white users, the answer almost uniformly was a “yes.” Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, a Dutch host was banned from the site after she denied four Israeli travelers a stay in her home over what she said was a protest against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Other companies built upon the sharing economy have also been accused of fomenting racial bias. The ridesharing service Uber, for example, has been accused of turning a blind eye to discrimination, as drivers and a Boston-based attorney claim the five-star rating system used to evaluate drivers is discriminatory due to passengers’ personal biases.
Airbnb’s revamped non-discriminatory policy was based largely based after an engagement with a Washington, D.C. consulting firm. The outcome is a long list of recommendations including improved workflows to halt discrimination, a more diverse workforce within Airbnb’s internal operations and a call on Airbnb to become more assertive in boosting the number of hosts in communities of color. Furthermore, Airbnb users starting this week must check the following disclaimer in order to either host or stay as a guest:
“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.”
Leveraging the power of technology in order to fight bias and racism is not easy for companies such as Airbnb, especially since it is challenging to enforce policies against people who are not these firms’ employees. Nevertheless, that is no excuse for a company to throw up its hands and not try to change how users within their online communities treat each other. After all, the neighborhood social networking platform Nextdoor was slammed last year for allowing racial profiling to proliferate on its site. One later, a complete overhaul on how users can report neighborhood safety and crime events resulted in a 75 percent decrease in racist postings.
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