Airbnb has been heralded as a brilliant startup for its success in revolutionizing short and long term lodging and disrupting markets worldwide. However, the company's insurmountable success has also been met with numerous amounts of criticism, particularly for the amount of discrimination that occurs on the platform. After Gregory Selden's case, the hashtag, #airbnbwhileblack, and a Harvard study that proved African Americans are less likely to receive bookings on Airbnb, the company realized they had not taken racism and discrimination into account when designing the product.
In order to address the issue, Airbnb has crafted a new anti-discrimination report. Laura Murphy, former director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, who spearheaded a comprehensive review of Airbnb, states, "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 32-page report is made up of eight key changes they plan to implement immediately:
1. The Airbnb community commitment
2. Enforcing the rules, supporting our community
3. Open doors
4. Fighting bias and bringing people together
5. One million instant book listings
6. Going beyond photos
7. A permanent full-time team of engineers to fight bias and promote diversity
8. A diverse workforce, a diverse community
To craft this Anti-Discrimination policy, Airbnb hired former Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder. Holder was the first black Federal Attorney General, the first black Attorney General of D.C., and a pioneer for racial justice throughout his career. Blavity sat down with Holder to discuss his decision to join Airbnb, users' apprehensions about the policy, and his thoughts on the post-election racial climate of the United States.
Holder and I began our discussion around the vitality of addressing and acknowledging discrimination. He emphasized Airbnb's commitment to understand and engage with the problem of discrimination, "I think that given our history we have become experts at avoiding issues that involve race. But I have to tell you, from the first time that I spoke to the folks at Airbnb they demonstrated a willingness to have what are uncomfortable but absolutely necessary conversations about why the issues they were dealing with arose. They were interested in solving the problem and not finding out a way to respond to public criticism."
Furthermore, he elaborated on why he thinks Airbnb is ahead of the curve when it comes to anti-discrimination policies, "The company spoke with and engaged members of the advocacy community and leaders of other diverse organizations. They connected with hosts and guests who had experienced discrimination on the platform to understand how they were impacted, and how the company could support them. These conversations I think were critical for the company to understand the experiences of marginalized communities and individuals. It’s the kind of the thing that we as a nation don’t do frequently enough, these are hard questions and hard conversations, but this is a company that was willing to do that, and it drew me to them. Through the process that I engaged in, I’ve been impressed."
Although Holder is impressed by the policy, many believe the company is not doing enough to prevent unconscious bias. The Harvard study that brought these issues to light emphasized "distinctively African-American names" as a key variable resulting in discrimination, yet there has been no suggestion in their new policy to eliminate names from the pre-booking process (although there is an effort to limit the use of photos). When asked about whether or not Airbnb considered limiting the use of names, Holder said the following:
"This was a question I wrestled with and that we wrestled with this as a group as well. The sharing economy is based on peer-to-peer interaction. The place that we all came from, is that, you shouldn’t have to hide who you are. The most important peer-to-peer interaction is that initial conversation between a host and a guest and that builds the required trust that’s necessary for a host to welcome a guest into their home. I came to believe that in addition to not having to hide who you are, that this anonymity could prevent that trust building conversation from taking place. The company came to this same conclusion after launching a really comprehensive review of the platform. As I said, Laura Murphy who I’ve known for a good number of years, she and I started in the same place and I think after conversations we all ended up at the same place. You have to preserve that first interaction, but at the same time protecting the community from discrimination. The company has developed a number of guardrails to ensure that users are protected when they use the platform. The anti-discrimination policy is the first line of defense, and anyone who wants to use the platform has to adhere to the policy. We’ve also tried to make it easier to report instances of potential discrimination. Users can flag things that they see, they can report discrimination directly. There’s a new open-door policy where users who are discriminated against will be re-booked. Especially with the formation of this anti-discrimination [product] team which is made up of engineers and data scientists. They’re experimenting with ways they can decrease the chances of bias entering the community by using metrics, numbers, and algorithms. They’re going to be using tools to reduce the chance of bias and discrimination, this has been an all hands effort using all the tools that were available to Airbnb."
Although Airbnb is receiving praise for its inclusive efforts, it's important to take into account that addressing discrimination is frankly the smarter thing to do from a profit perspective. Millennials of color make up a large consumer base of the sharing economy that often goes untapped when they are excluded and discriminated against. Holder agreed with this and elaborated by stating, "I think this is a really important point, and I hope this point will not be lost on the American business community. What Airbnb is doing is the right thing socially, the right thing morally, I believe, but there’s also a positive economic consequence to adopting these policies. Millennials are really diverse, driven, outspoken. I am the father of three millennials, trust me. These are outspoken young people who have a sense of themselves and their expectations. There’s a study that we looked at that showed 74% of millennials support the sharing economy, and of them, millennials who were aware of Airbnb 84% have a favorable opinion of them. I want to recognize how important millennials are to this business and it is taking all the steps to ensure the platform is safe and reliable for this diverse community."
He goes on to mention, "the mission of Airbnb is to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere. If you think about that, and the barriers that knocks down, It’s hard to demonize someone you know, it’s hard to demonize a group that you had interaction with. If you think about that, especially at this time in our history, think about how important that is, in terms of interaction in this country and how this country will interact with other nations around the world. I think millennials, undoubtedly, are going to play a huge part in helping this company reach what I think is a lofty but attainable goal. I think this company, and I’m not just saying this, but I think this company can really lead the way to understanding in parts of the world where that is so sorely needed."
Although it has been made clear that there will be an effort to implement a zero tolerance policy around instances of discrimination, a major concern for victims of discrimination who use Airbnb is the private arbitration process. Arbitration has been investigated by The New York Times, and with specific regards to Airbnb, highlighted in The New Yorker. Arbitration clauses are normally found in Terms of Service agreements, and essentially eliminate a user's ability to sue a company. Selden's lawyer, Ikechukwu Emejuru, stated the following "by placing Mr. Selden’s claims into arbitration, a consumer’s constitutional right to a jury trial and access to the courts of law continues to be whittled down gradually but surely."
When asked about reassurances the company can provide regarding the skepticism users have around Airbnb’s commitment both arbitration and to enforcing anti-discrimination policies, Nick Papas, Airbnb's global spokesperson, told Blavity: "we’ve found that arbitration is an effective way to resolve many issues. More importantly, we want to focus on how we can stop problems before they start. Our goal is to help prevent discrimination from happening in the first place. We think our policy changes will help achieve that goal and guests also retain the ability to take action against hosts if they believe that’s necessary. "
In the larger scheme of things, I expressed to Holder that conversations around race and tackling discrimination begin to feel elusive during such an overtly racist period in our history, he shared the following words of wisdom and comfort:
"Now is exactly the time to have conversations around race, ethnicity, religion, all of the things that were used to divide us as a nation, during what was an awful campaign, are the things now that people of good will have to talk about, we have to heal as a nation. I think I would say that if you see someone in your community who is down, be their keeper, support them, uplift them. There is strength in the bonds of community. This is a nation that has faced great obstacles in the past. African Americans have endured slavery, Jim Crow, and we as a group endured because even under those trying circumstances, we as a community maintained. That’s what we as a nation have to do now. For your audience, primarily millennials, you’re the generation that is soon going to control this country, you’re the future, and you’re crucial to the future of this country. I think your generation has the power to effect change and heal through non-traditional platforms like social media, but also not to forget traditional ones like community organizing. In the future, millennials are going to be at the forefront at all of our social advocacy conversations and you all will drive new movements. I think having a sense of history, what we’ve overcome in the past, even when we seem to be in a pretty dark place, I think we should understand we control our future. You millennials have a special responsibility, and a special ability to shape that future. No matter what challenges, this community or our country faces, the most important thing to remember is to never quit. Change can’t happen without the agitators of the next generation, without those people who John Lewis said we're prepared to 'make good trouble.' People will try to stop you, but if you focus on the arc that we always want to be on, we can stay on that arc of progress. We have to understand that it may bend toward justice, but not on its own. It bends toward justice because people, in your generation, are pulling on that arc toward justice. It happens as a result of commitment, perseverance, and an understanding that there are going to be detours, but I’m confident, I have faith in your generation that we’ll take this country to a good place. And I hope this Airbnb experience will be one that will help in that regard."
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