Is Airbnb’s New Anti-Discrimination Policy Too Little, Too Late?

AirbnbAirbnb has been plagued with accusations that African Americans attempting to book accommodations are met with discrimination. A lawsuit filed earlier this year alleges that 25-year-old Gregory Selden faced discrimination by an Airbnb host. And a study published in January found that requests for Airbnb lodging from people who have “distinctively African-American” names were about 16 percent less likely to be accepted than “identical guests with distinctively white names.”

Earlier this summer, Airbnb announced that it would review its anti-discrimination policies. The company brought on Laura Murphy, former head of the Washington, D.C. branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to write the new policy.

Airbnb released a report last week that details the policy. In the introduction, Murphy assured customers that 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.”

At the heart of the policy is the Airbnb Community Commitment. Starting on Nov. 1, everyone who uses Airbnb will be asked to uphold the following commitment: “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.”

In addition to this commitment, the company put new rules in place that it claims are “stronger than what is required by law.” Here’s an overview:

  • A permanent, full-time product team to fight bias made up of engineers, data scientists, researchers, and designers “whose sole purpose is to advance belonging and inclusion and to root out bias.”
  • Encouraging the growth of instant book listings without prior approval by the host. The use of instant book listings will be accelerated with the goal of making 1 million listings bookable through instant book by January 2017.
  • Going beyond photos in profiles. Airbnb’s new product team will “experiment with reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process.”
  • Through the new open-doors policy, if a guest is unable to book a listing because of discrimination, Airbnb will “ensure the guest finds a place to stay.”

Is the new policy really effective?

So, how effective is the new policy? Ben Edelman, lead author of a Harvard Business School report on Airbnb’s problems with discrimination, told  MIT Technology Review: “Airbnb’s proposed steps do not seem likely to succeed.” In June, Edelman wrote on his website about the steps Airbnb could take to prevent discrimination. None of them made it into the report.

The “open-doors” policy in particular doesn’t seem to be very effective. As City Lab points out, “It doesn’t seem to do much to actually correct the racism.” It lacks a penalty for a host who discriminates, as well as “anything that disincentivizes discrimination to begin with,” wrote CityLab reporter Brentin Mock. The only thing Airbnb offers to do for a guest who experiences discrimination is to find them different accommodations. But as Mock put it, “Those guests would end up in a place that was not their preferred choice anyway.”

Joah Spearman, CEO and founder of travel startup Localeur, has the same criticism of “open doors.” It doesn’t “truly punish the potentially discriminating hosts, but instead forces the guests to wave a white flag and get Airbnb’s help to secure alternative lodging,” Spearman wrote in an open letter to Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky.  

And Spearman has more criticism for Airbnb’s new policy. The 32-page report wasn’t actually authored by Airbnb, and Spearman says: “This leads me to believe the fight against discrimination lacks internal, high-level ownership.” He personally experienced discrimination while trying to book accommodations on Airbnb “on a number of occasions.” And “at least one” of them took place through instant booking, “the very product initiative Airbnb touts as a potential anti-discrimination tool.” That isn’t exactly a vote of confidence for Airbnb’s new policy.

And what about how long it took Airbnb to address discrimination in the first place? Cheskey himself admitted the company is lagging in this area. He wrote in an email to Airbnb hosts and guests last week: “We have been slow to address these problems, and for this I am sorry.” He added that Airbnb “will not only make this right; we will work to set an example that other companies can follow.”

Based on the new policy, as outlined in the report crafted by Murphy, it seems unlikely Cheskey can make good on his promise. TriplePundit will continue to cover the story as it develops.

Image credit: Flickr/tommypjr

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Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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