This month Airbnb released a
In contrast to the company’s prior denials, Airbnb now
While Airbnb’s report is a step in the right direction, it does little to address the crucial subject of how to actually fix the problem of discrimination. Indeed, the report proposes actions of uncertain or unproven effectiveness. At the same time, the report quickly dismisses a simpler alternative response—removing guest photos and names from booking requests—which would be far more likely to succeed. Meanwhile, the report completely fails to defend the legal gamesmanship by which Airbnb avoids litigation on the merits when consumers complain about Airbnb, and the report equally fails to defend Airbnb’s continued prohibition on users conducting research to uncover and measure discrimination for themselves.
This article offers my critique.
Airbnb’s bottom line
What exactly did Airbnb commit to change?
Airbnb plans to increase the number of "Instant Book" properties, with a
stated goal of one million by January 2017. Instant Book offers a potential mechanism to reduce discrimination: When hosts pre-promise to accept any interested guest who agrees to pay, they do not have the ability to screen each individual guest’s request, therefore leaving much less opportunity to discriminate.
Nonetheless, Instant Book addresses only a portion of the problem. If disfavored guests are limited to Instant Book properties, they are left with a reduced set of properties, typically meaning an inferior match with their preferences as well as higher price and less flexibility. Furthermore, hosts can use cancellations—permitted, in certain quantities, under Airbnb’s rules—to undo the anti-discrimination benefits of Instant Book.
Moreover, Airbnb’s million-property goal is at best ambiguous. Airbnb doesn’t say how many Instant Book properties are already available, so it’s hard to assess how big an increase that would be or how realistic it is. Nor does Airbnb indicate the methods to be used to achieve the increase. If January comes and the objective has not been reached, what then?
Airbnb says it will "experiment with reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process." Certainly photos have been prominent, and to its credit Airbnb now agrees excessively so, in light of the limited information they actually convey and the superiority of other information (like objective verifications).
Notably, Airbnb’s plan to experiment with reduced photo size has been misreported in the press. For example, the Wall Street Journal
reported that Airbnb "is planning to reduce the prominence of guests’ photos," and Diversity Inc. reported that Airbnb’s changes "include displaying photos less prominently." But Airbnb’s actual promise wasn’t to reduce photo prominence. Rather, the company promised only to run an experiment, of unspecified duration and scope, with no commitment whatsoever as to subsequent changes. With so many caveats, it’s hard to put much weight on this response.
Effective November 1, Airbnb will
require users to accept a stronger and more detailed nondiscrimination policy: "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."
Airbnb’s policy offers commendable principles. But the company’s existing policy already included the same substance as the new wording. Will a compulsory screen or checkbox actually prevent hosts from continuing to discriminate? Airbnb offers no evidence that a restated policy will make a difference. Indeed, experience from other types of discrimination suggests that those who seek to discriminate will change only slowly and under significant pressure.
Sometime during the first half of 2017, Airbnb
promises to modify its site to prevent a host from telling one guest that a property is unavailable, then later accepting another guest’s request for the same nights. This change seeks to penalize hosts who falsely claim a property is unavailable: If a host rejects a guest due to a false claim of unavailability, the host won’t be able to keep the property listed for others, making the pretextual rejection more costly.
Unfortunately, there’s little reason to think this approach will operate as claimed. Instead, strategic hosts will switch to other reasons for rejecting guests—reasons guests can less readily prove to be pretextual. An "unavailable" response would prevent the host from booking the property to someone else, but the host can instead specify some other reason for declining the request. So there’s little reason to think this change will stop those who want to discriminate.
This change will also hinder guests’ efforts to demonstrate discrimination. After rejection, a concerned guest may ask a friend to inquire (or creates a test account to do so), thereby proving that the rejection was due to guest identity and not genuine unavailability. This second inquiry provides a valuable verification, checking whether the host can keep his story straight. Substituting automatic software logic for fallible hosts, Airbnb makes it more difficult to catch a host in a lie.
Finally, Airbnb offers no explanation why the company needs four to ten months to build this feature. Airbnb’s site already offers multiple categorizations for each night including available, unavailable, and booked. By all indications, this architecture could easily be extended to offer the promised feature—for example, a new status called "booked-locked" that a host cannot change back to available. If this feature is important and useful, why wait?
The proposed changes share common weaknesses. They all rely on unproven and indeed unstated assumptions about how hosts will respond. And each change leaves ample room to question whether it will help at all. One might hope the combination would be more than the sum of its parts. But when each change falls so far short, it’s hard to be optimistic. These are not the "powerful systemic changes" Airbnb
The better policy: remove guest names and photos
In sharp contrast to the indirect changes Airbnb proposes, a much simpler adjustment would more directly prevent discrimination: remove guest photos and names from the information a host sees when evaluating a guest’s request. If a host could not see a guest’s photo and name before accepting a booking, the host would have no way to determine the guest’s race, age, gender or other characteristics. Even a host who wanted to discriminate would not have the information to make a decision based on the improper factor.
Removing photos and names is particularly compelling in light of best practice developed over decades in other contexts. In 1952, the Boston Symphony Orchestra
argues that photos are "an important security feature: hosts and guests want to know who they will be meeting when a stay begins." Here, Airbnb’s report echoes April 2016 comments from Airbnb’s David King, Director of Diversity and Belonging, who told NPR: "The photos are on the platform for a reason. … You want to make sure that the guest that shows up at your door is the person that you’ve been communicating with."
This reasoning is particularly unconvincing. No doubt, hosts and guests should eventually see each other’s photos—but after a booking is confirmed.
says "profile photos are an important feature that help build relationships and allow hosts and guests to get to know one another before a booking begins."
Airbnb’s reasoning ignores the competing interests at hand. Perhaps profile photos help some guests and hosts get to know each other. But they also impede bookings by certain guests—notably including victims of longstanding and multifaceted discrimination. How should we weigh a small benefit to many, versus a large cost to a smaller (but important) group? At the same time, the "relationship" benefit is particularly shallow when the host offers an entire property, often with keys handed off via a doorman or lockbox, so the guest and host may never even meet in person. When there is little or no "relationship" to build, Airbnb’s reasoning provides particularly poor support for a policy that harms disadvantaged guests.
Meanwhile, Airbnb’s "get to know one another" principle is undercut by the company’s actions in other contexts—calling into question whether this factor should be taken at face value. Notably, Airbnb prevents hosts and guests from sharing email addresses and phone numbers before confirming a booking, running software to scan every message for prohibited material. Airbnb does not impose these restrictions because they in some way help build relationships between users; quite the contrary, these restrictions prevent users from talking to each other directly, by email or phone, in the ways they find convenient. Rather, the Airbnb imposes these restrictions to protect its business interests—preventing guests from booking directly and circumventing the company’s fees. Airbnb’s "get to know one another" purpose thus seems conveniently self-serving—invoked when it supports Airbnb’s favored approach, but quickly discarded when costly.
proposes that "guests should not be asked or required to hide behind curtains of anonymity when trying to find a place to stay." The report continues: "technology shouldn’t ask us to hide who we are. Instead, we should be implementing new, creative solutions to fight discrimination and promote understanding."
Here too, Airbnb’s approach favors the preferences of the many over the needs of those who face discrimination. While Airbnb frames its approach as not asking guests to be anonymous, in fact Airbnb does much more than that: Airbnb affirmatively prohibits guests from being anonymous, including requiring that guests register using their real names, validating names against government s and credit records, and presenting each guest’s real name, not a pseudonym, for host approval. Far from giving guests more choice to reveal or withhold information, Airbnb requires guests to reveal information—even when research makes clear that the information facilitates discrimination.
If there was reason to think Airbnb’s other changes would actually, completely, and promptly end discrimination by hosts, guests might feel confident in sharing sensitive information such as race. But given the likelihood that discrimination will continue despite the changes Airbnb promises, disfavored guests have every reason to want to conceal information that could facilitate discrimination. Airbnb’s policy continues to disallow them from doing so.
Some might counter that Airbnb hosts are informal and ought to have more information than hotels or ordinary landlords. Indeed, one might imagine a policy that distinguished between classes of hosts. If a host occasionally offers a shared room or a portion of a property with the host on site, the relationship feels informal, and some might argue that anti-discrimination rules are overkill in such situations. Conversely, if the host is off-site and the guest uses the property exclusively, the arms-length relationship looks more like a hotel. By all indications, the latter is vastly more common than the former (whether measured in nights booked or, especially, revenue). Airbnb’s report could have considered policies that vary based on the property type—perhaps retaining photos and names for the most informal hosts, where personal interaction between guests and hosts is a realistic possibility, while removing them for hosts offering arms-length rental of entire properties. But Airbnb devoted not a single sentence to this possibility.
Airbnb report’s silence on compulsory arbitration—and the prior positions of Airbnb’s distinguished consultant-advisors
Airbnb’s report is completely silent on the company’s
Moreover, arbitrators are chosen through processes that bias them against consumers’ claims. One lawyer recently
In the context of discrimination at Airbnb, new and novel questions make arbitration particularly inappropriate. Arbitration lacks an appeal process where different judges evaluate an initial decision—the proper way to develop policy in new areas of law. And with arbitration results secret, even if one consumer prevailed in arbitration, others would not learn about it. Nor would other arbitrators be bound by a prior dispute’s conclusions even in identical circumstances.
Tellingly, Airbnb is at this moment invoking its arbitration requirement to attempt to dispose of class action litigation alleging discrimination. In May 2016, Virginia resident Gregory Selden filed a
Throughout its report, Airbnb cloaks itself in the names and resumes of distinguished advisors (including
Consider the position of the ACLU during the time when Airbnb consultant Laura Murphy, the report’s sole author, was ACLU’s Legislative Director. In a 2013
Airbnb’s other consultant-advisors have similarly taken positions against compulsory arbitration. Consider Eric Holder, former US Attorney General, now a partner at the prestigious law firm Covington & Burling. Under Holder’s leadership, the US Department of Justice repeatedly opposed compulsory arbitration, including filing a Supreme Court
Facing scrutiny of its arbitration provisions in June 2016, Airbnb
Airbnb’s insistence that consumers arbitrate, without the benefit of courts or court procedures, is a stark contrast to Airbnb’s approach to protect its own interests. Airbnb does not hesitate to file lawsuits when lawsuits are in the company’s interest. Most notably, Airbnb recently sued San Francisco, Santa Monica, and Anaheim over laws it disliked. Whatever the merits of Airbnb’s claims (and on that point, see my July critique with Nancy Leong), Airbnb is happy to take its preferred disputes to court—while specifically prohibiting consumers from doing so.
Testing and data
Consider the limits of research to date. My 2015
These problems have a particularly clear solution. Airbnb should revise its Terms of Service to allow bona fide testing.
Airbnb’s report also offers a series of claims grounded in data (
Airbnb’s response in context
In my June article proposing methods to prevent discrimination at Airbnb, I called for concealing guest photos when guests apply to hosts, similarly concealing guest names, normalizing dispute resolution, and allowing testing. I didn’t expect Airbnb to do all of this. But I was disappointed that Airbnb’s response discusses only the first of these four changes, and even that only superficially. Based on Airbnb’s promise of a "comprehensive review," I hoped for more.