The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Airbnb says it plans to take action to crack down on racial discrimination on its site

(iStock/Kat Rudell)

The home-sharing company Airbnb, facing increasing complaints of racial bias, says it's planning a "comprehensive review" of how discrimination may arise on a platform that has given private citizens the power to rent their homes — and pick their guests — over the Internet.

A widely cited Harvard Business School study last year found "widespread discrimination" by Airbnb hosts who were less likely to accept bookings from guests whose names sounded distinctly black. And minority users who say their travel plans have been denied or canceled because of their race have rallied under the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, appealing to the company to rein in a practice that was long ago outlawed among traditional hotels.

Just earlier this week, Airbnb removed a host from the platform after he sent racial epithets to a 28-year-old Nigerian woman who was trying to reserve a home in North Carolina. The episode — and its graphic language — renewed national attention on whether the company was doing enough to root out racist users.

In a memo that Airbnb planned to send some concerned users and organizations on Thursday afternoon, the company says it will spend the next several months reviewing how hosts and guests interact on the site and what it could do to ensure users are treated more fairly. Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington D.C. Legislative Office, has been brought on as a paid adviser to lead the review. Airbnb says it expects to announce findings in early September.

"We can't control all the biases of all of our users but we want to make clear that discrimination is against everything we stand for," a company spokesperson said in a statement to the Post.

In both comments to the Post and the memo, Airbnb described discrimination and unconscious bias as problems that have "plagued societies for centuries," suggesting that one online company can't eradicate them. But academics and advocates have insisted that Airbnb plays an influential role in enabling discrimination. And, unlike corporate hotels, Airbnb puts extensive power in the hands of individuals — with individual biases — to decide who can stay where.

The Harvard study last year did not suggest that racial bias was more prevalent on the site than in other corners of society, but the researchers argued that the design of Airbnb's platform can make it easy for people to act on those biases. Users are required to identify themselves by their real names, and personal photos make race hard to conceal. By offering these two pieces of information — a name and image — at the moment of booking, the site also makes racial clues prominent right at the moment when hosts are deciding who to rent to.

"The onus is on Airbnb to make changes," says Michael Luca, one of the Harvard researchers on the earlier study who has also discussed potential solutions with the company. "The bottom line is that the design of platforms dictates the decisions that people make on them. Even if there’s implicit bias, they have an enormous amount of ability to change the extent of discrimination on the platform."

Luca commended the company for taking more steps to review the problem but added that Airbnb will need to propose actual interventions to solve it. Several fixes, he suggests, would be relatively easy: Airbnb could downplay when and where it displays guests' pictures and names. It could increase use of the "instant booking" feature that eliminates the subjective back-and-forth with hosts deciding which reservations to book. It could also convert its anti-discrimination policy into regular notices: Each time you book a reservation, Airbnb could remind users that it bans discrimination.

"The timing at which you tell people something matters a lot," Luca says.

Perhaps such a notice wouldn't deter users intent on discriminating. But it could prompt others to catch their own implicit biases.

Changes like these — especially if they were tested with randomized control trials — wouldn't require Airbnb to fully embrace anonymity. In the past, the company has resisted eliminating names and pictures entirely, arguing that they help build trust on a network among strangers.

Austin Shafran, a spokesman for the group Share Better that has widely criticized Airbnb, says the company until now has done too little to address a "clear pattern of racial discrimination." Earlier this week, Share Better released a 30-second ad flashing recent headlines about the company's racial troubles.

"My name is Akila," a woman's voice says over the video. "And if you couldn't tell from my name, my photos make it very clear I am a black woman. I get declined all the time on Airbnb. Hosts would have one excuse after another. 'Oh, it was just booked.' Or 'I hadn't updated the calendar.' But their excuses don't matter."