It was in December of last year when a study conducted by Harvard University put San Francisco-based tech company Airbnb in a difficult and awkward position. African-American sounding names on the site were found to have a 16 percent less chance in receiving a rental offer from an owner. Soon after, #AirbnbWhileBlack was trending on the Twitterverse and the company’s reputation was on the line. This prompted the site to hire former Attorney General Eric Holder to assist in combatting the ongoing discrimination.
Last week the booming tech company, now valued around $30 billion, doubled down on its efforts to combat this ugly pattern. New policies are being implemented, such as an anti-bias pledge which customers must agree to before choosing a place to stay. In addition, customers who claimed to have been affected by discrimination will be guaranteed lodging, as well as those who have been been denied upon entry.
For a company based in a city as progressive as San Francisco, this ethos does not exactly apply to its rentals around the world. As Airbnb is taking steps to ensure bias does not occur, their actions may only go so far. As a site that encourages the independence of its renters in their decisions to accept or deny a customer, how does such a company properly balance discrimination while still granting a sense autonomy for their users?
Though it should be noted that no one should have to face discrimination when trying to find a place to stay for the night, our editorial board was somewhat split on the issue. Some argued that Airbnb is fully responsible for the blatant biases, while others thought it was out of their control. Some compared Airbnb to any ordinary hotel, where prompt action would be taken against cases of discrimination (which might even make the news). It was argued that Airbnb’s case should be treated no differently. Further stated was that if the company was to discourage discrimination, this may have a positive and rolling effect on people’s biases in the future.
Others took a more conservative stance in their belief that Airbnb could battle prejudice. In regards to the pledge the company has implemented, it was stated how anti-discriminatory practices should have already been in place, and some staff members questioned how effective they could really be in defeating bias. Invasion of privacy could was also a concern, as Airbnb will be determining race through “your ZIP code, census data and possibly facial recognition tools. And they’ll monitor,” reported NPR’s Aarti Shahani. This could potentially bring in new forms of unforeseen discrimination.
It is innovative of Airbnb to dedicate a team of engineers to bias prevention, and guaranteeing customers a place to stay in the case of discrimination is perhaps the company’s most promising and tangible policy. This could have an actual positive effect in combatting prejudice. While the site may not be able to control every case of bias due to the owners’ ability to decline and accept clients freely, hopefully a majority of incidents will be avoided. Time will be the deciding factor to see if these policies truly work, but Airbnb should be applauded for taking such swift action.
The company is attempting to change not only bias within their site, but people’s perceptions of others, and to an even larger extent, our online interactions: a true test of Airbnb’s longevity as a company. Although this is a lofty goal, it is admirable at the very least. It is clear that while the pursuit of discrimination being wiped away from the site may be near to impossible, the short-term rental company is taking notable action.