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How Airbnb plans to fix its racial-bias problem

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

In response to growing complaints of racial bias among its users, the home-sharing company Airbnb will beef up its nondiscrimination policy, do more to diversify its own workforce and offer implicit bias training to its hosts, according to a report released today after a three-month review by the company.

But Airbnb will not, for now, concede to critics one of their chief requests — abandoning the user photos that make it easy to identify online who is a minority.

"After thoroughly analyzing this issue, I came to believe that Airbnb guests should not be asked or required to hide behind curtains of anonymity when trying to find a place to stay," writes the report's author, Laura Murphy, a former longtime American Civil Liberties Union official who was brought on as an adviser to lead Airbnb's review and who worked on the effort along with former Attorney General Eric Holder. "Technology can bring us together and technology shouldn’t ask us to hide who we are. Instead, we should be implementing new, creative solutions to fight discrimination and promote understanding."

By the end of the year, the company is vowing instead to experiment with reducing the visibility of photos on booking pages and promoting in their place other reputation information, such as reviews. The issue has been a thorny one for the company, which argues that photos — as well as real names — are necessary to create trust and ensure safety on a platform where millions of strangers rent space in each others' private homes.

Academic research has found discrimination among Airbnb hosts against guests with black-sounding names. And critics have argued that the design of the site — with such information prominently displayed — may more easily enable discrimination, making the company responsible for the behavior of users acting even on implicit biases. Airbnb's own research, the company acknowledges in the report, "generally confirmed public reports that minorities struggle more than others to book a listing."

Civil-rights groups that were given a preview of the changes on Wednesday in a meeting at Holder's Washington law firm have cautiously cheered the changes as a sincere response to months of pressure on the company.

"The metric of success, though, will be less dehumanizing, less discriminatory treatment of black folks," said Rashad Robinson, the executive director of the group Color of Change, which led a campaign to draw attention to racial bias on Airbnb. "We think the work that has been done has been good work, and we hope it results in change. But the change is what will determine how successful all of this is."

At his organization's own board meetings in the Bay Area and New York, Robinson said, traveling members have been denied accommodations on Airbnb for rooms that later remained available to other users. Airbnb's response, he said, shows the power of organized black communities to influence multi-billion-dollar corporations.

"We believe in holding them accountable," Robinson said, "and forcing them to be nervous about disappointing black people."

Among the promised changes, Airbnb will create a new feature automatically blocking calendar dates once a host rejects a potential guest on the grounds that a space is not available. That would prevent hosts from denying a user based on their race, only to offer the rental for the same dates to someone else, as has occurred in several of the reported complaints.

Under another new policy, the company also vows to immediately find alternative, comparable accommodations for guests who have experienced discrimination, even if that means pointing them to a traditional hotel room when no other Airbnb options exist and potentially subsidizing the price difference.

In the revised nondiscrimination policy, the company is more explicit that hosts cannot decline guests based on their color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status. Nor can they post any statements suggesting a preference or discouraging any group. (If a host is sharing their living space, however, they can request guests of the same gender.) Airbnb will then remind users of the policy at points throughout the booking process, as experts on implicit bias recommended.

Starting Nov. 1, users will also be asked to agree to this commitment before they book a listing or rent their space:

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.

The company acknowledged that awareness of its existing nondiscrimination policy was "extremely limited." And the report concludes that Airbnb has been slow to address complaints of discrimination because of its own lack of diversity. (The company says less than 10 percent of its U.S. employees are from "underrepresented populations.")

In response, it is also promising a recruiting push for employees at historically black colleges and universities, and a new "diversity rule" that would require all senior-level job candidate pools to include women and underrepresented groups.

Earlier this summer, the Congressional Black Caucus sent Airbnb a letter urging the company to take seriously complaints of discrimination that could run afoul of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On Thursday U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), one of the letter's authors, called the company's announced policies a "commendable step in the right direction."

Critics of a company that has threatened the hotel industry and riled some politicians had latched onto Airbnb's racial woes as further grounds to attack the company, and several dismissed the proposed changes on Thursday as more window-dressing. New York State assembly member Walter Mosely called the report a "complete failure" in a statement.

"Merely offering optional anti-bias training for hosts and making photos less prominent will not prevent their platform from continuing to be a tool for discrimination," Mosely said.

With time, however, it will become clearer whether the company's own diversity numbers increase and complaints of bias decline as a result.