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Discrimination Against Airbnb Guests

December 10, 2015 - with Michael Luca and Dan Svirsky


To facilitate trust, many online platforms encourage sellers to provide personal profiles and even to post pictures of themselves. However, these features may also facilitate discrimination based on sellers' race, gender, age, or other characteristics.

In an article posted today, Michael Luca, Dan Svirsky, and I present results of a field experiment on Airbnb. Using guest accounts that are identical save for names indicating varying races, we submitted requests to more than 6,000 hosts. Requests from guests with distinctively African-American names are roughly 16% less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively White names. The difference persists whether the host is African American or White, male or female. The difference also persists whether the host shares the property with the guest or not, and whether the property is cheap or expensive.

Discrimination is costly for hosts who indulge in it. Hosts who reject African-American guests are able to find a replacement guest only 35% of the time.

On the whole, our analysis suggests a need for caution. While information can facilitate transactions, it also facilitates discrimination. Airbnb's site carefully shrouds information Airbnb wants to conceal, such as hosts' email addresses and phones numbers, so guests can't contact hosts directly and circumvent Airbnb's fees. But when it comes to information that facilitates discrimination, including name and photo, Airbnb offers no such precaution.

Our working paper: Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy: Evidence from a Field Experiment.

What to do? Our draft suggests several ways Airbnb could change its site to reduce or prevent discrimination, including concealing guest names, concealing or deprioritizing guest photos, and increasing instant bookings. In the short run, we're offering a browser plugin to let interested Airbnb users experience the site without information that may facilitate discrimination. Using our plugin, a host can view a guest's request without having to see the guest's face or name. Our plugin: Debias Yourself.

 

This article extends and continues the research in my January 2014 working paper (with Michael Luca) as to discrimination against Airbnb hosts: Digital Discrimination: The Case of Airbnb.com.