Preventing Discrimination at Airbnb

In January 2014, Mike Luca and I posted a study finding that black hosts on Airbnb face discrimination: by all indications, guests are less willing to stay at their properties, forcing them to lower their prices to attract guests. More recently, Mike Luca, Dan Svirsky, and I contacted hosts using test guest accounts that were white and black, male and female, showing that black guests are less likely to be accepted by hosts. Both findings are troubling: The Internet has the power to make markets fairer and more inclusive, but Airbnb designed its platform to make race needlessly prominent, all but inviting discrimination.

Initially Airbnb responded to our research by framing discrimination as a problem that has "plagued societies for centuries" and emphasizing that the company "can’t control all the biases" of its users. After a barrage of media coverage, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky this month admitted that discrimination is a "huge issue" and said the company "will be revisiting the design of our site from end to end to see how we can create a more inclusive platform." Indeed, today Airbnb convenes an invitation-only summit in Washington to discuss the situation and, perhaps, design improvements.

While I applaud Airbnb’s new interest in fighting discrimination on its platform, I can’t agree with Chesky’s subsequent claim that preventing discrimination on Airbnb is "really, really hard." Quite the contrary, the solution is apparent and has been known for years. In today’s piece, I renew my longstanding proposal that would substantially fix the problem, then offer two smaller adjustments that are appropriate under the circumstances.

The solution: Limit the distribution of irrelevant information that facilitates discrimination

Online environments make it easy to limit the information that guests and hosts reveal. If certain information causes discrimination, the natural remedy is to conceal that information so customers do not consider it when making booking and acceptance decisions.

Names and photos typically indicate the races of Airbnb guests and hosts. But names and photos are not necessary for guests and hosts to do business. Hosts and guests can amply assess one anothers’ trustworthiness using the significant other information Airbnb already collects and presents. For these reasons, I contend that the Airbnb site should not reveal sensitive race information until a transaction is confirmed. If guests and hosts don’t see names and photos in advance, they simply won’t be able to discriminate on that basis.

The proposal is a smaller change than it might at first appear. In fact, Airbnb has long limited information flows to advance its business interests. Airbnb’s revenue depends not just on introducing hosts to guests, and vice versa, but on transactions actually flowing through Airbnb’s platform so Airbnb can charge booking fees. Airbnb’s revenue would drop if guests and hosts could contact each other directly and agree to pay via Paypal, cash on arrival, or similar. To prevent hosts and guests from going around Airbnb, the company withholds email addresses and phone numbers while the users are still discussing a possible stay — letting each user examine the other’s profile, reviews, verifications, and more, but intentionally withholding the two pieces of information that would undermine Airbnb’s revenue. But Airbnb doesn’t just limit information presented in profiles and request templates; it also affirmatively filters messages between guests and hosts. Airbnb provides a text message system to let users ask questions and share more details, but it doesn’t want the messages to be used to cut Airbnb out of the transaction. So Airbnb’s servers examine each message and blocksanything that looks like an email address or a phone number. In short, there’s ample precedent for Airbnb withholding information — when it wants to.

I anticipate several objections to the proposed change:

  • Trust and safety. Certainly trust issues are central to Airbnb’s business — letting strangers stay in your home when you’re not there to supervise; staying in a stranger’s home when you’re at your most vulnerable (asleep). In that context, some might argue that every possible piece of additional information is important and should be provided. But I question what information the names and photos truly add. Airbnb already validates users’ identities, including checking driver’s license photographs and asking identity verification questions that impostors would struggle to answer. Airbnb reports linked Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, and Airbnb presents and tabulates reviews from prior transactions. Plus, all Airbnb transactions are prepaid. As a result, a host considering a guest’s request learns that the prospective guest has (say) a verified phone number and email, verified identity, verified Facebook and LinkedIn profiles with two hundred connections in total, and five favorable reviews from other Airbnb stays within the last year. A name and photo reveal race, gender, and age, but they provide little information about genuine trustworthiness. Whatever information the name and photo provide, that information comes more from (potentially inaccurate) stereotypes than from the name and photo themselves.
  • Perhaps users would be confused by communications without names. But "Airbnb Guest" and "Airbnb Host" make fine placeholders. Alternatively, Airbnb could move to a username system, letting users choose their own nicknames to use before a transaction is confirmed. eBay follows exactly that approach, and it works just fine. Airbnb would still organize a host’s messages with a given guest into a single page, and vice versa.
  • Some hosts want to see guest photos before accepting a request, and vice versa for guests choosing hosts. But if a homeowner is particularly concerned about strangers visiting his property, perhaps he shouldn’t be running a de facto hotel.
  • Photos help guests and hosts recognize each other. Airbnb’s David King, Director of Diversity and Belonging, in April 2016 told NPR: "The photos are on the platform for a reason. … You want to make sure that that guest that shows up at your door is the person that you’ve been communicating with." But nothing in the proposed change would prevent a host and guest from recognizing each other. After a booking is confirmed, they’d still see names and photos just as they do now. The change is to timing — revealing names and photos only after the booking is final.

In principle, Airbnb’s approach to names and photos could vary based on the type of listing. For example, names and photos might be viewed with special skepticism when a guest is renting the entire property. After all, when a guest occupies a property exclusively, the guest and host will have limited interaction. Indeed, they may never meet in person at all, exchanging keys via a doorman or lockbox. Then the specific identity of guest and host are all the less important. Conversely, it’s somewhat easier to see a proper role for photos and names when a host is truly "sharing" a property with a guest, jointly using common property facilities (perhaps a shared kitchen) or otherwise interacting with each other.

Allow testing

After our study, several users ran their own tests to assess possible discrimination. For example, after being rejected by a host, a black guest might create a new account with a "white-sounding" name and a photo of a white person — then use that new account to reapply to the same host. Multiple users have tested for discrimination via this methodology. (Examples: 1, 2)

Crucially, Airbnb prohibits such testing. Airbnb’s compulsory Terms of Service forbids all test accounts, instead requiring that users "agree to provide accurate, current and complete information during the registration process." Furthermore, Airbnb specifically insists that each user "may not have more than one (1) active Airbnb Account," and Airbnb claims the right to entirely eject any person who creates multiple accounts. But if each a user is limited to a single account, in the user’s true name, most testing procedures are unworkable.

Airbnb rigorously enforces its prohibitions on test accounts and follows through on its threats to exclude users with multiple accounts. Indeed, during the testing for my second article about Airbnb discrimination, the company closed my personal account — even removing my reputation and reviews accumulated from prior stays. I requested that Airbnb reopen my account but have received no reply, and my account remains disabled to this day.

Airbnb has no proper reason to penalize those who test its services. It would be intolerable for a car dealership to post a sign saying "No testers allowed" in hopes of concealing prices that vary prices based on a buyer’s race. Nor should Airbnb be able to conceal discrimination on its platform through contractual restrictions and penalties.

Normalize dispute resolution

The standard American approach to dispute resolution is the legal system — judge and jury. Dissatisfied hosts and guests — such as those who think they’ve faced discrimination — ordinarily could go to court to explain the problem and try to articulate a violation of applicable law. But Airbnb specifically prohibits users from filing a standard lawsuit. In particular, Airbnb’s Terms of Service instead demand that "any dispute, claim or controversy arising out of or relating to … the Services or use of the Site … will be settled by binding arbitration."

For guests and hosts, arbitration presents several key problems. For one, Airbnb chose the arbitration service, so anyone pursuing a grievance might naturally worry that the arbitrator will favor Airbnb. Furthermore, arbitration results are confidential — so even if some users prevail against Airbnb, the interested public would never find out. Arbitration also provides little to no ability for complainants to get the documents they need to prove their case, for example by searching Airbnb’s records to learn what the company knew, who else complained, and what alternatives it considered. Nor does arbitration provide an appeals process appropriate for exploring new or complex questions of law. Most of all, Airbnb requires that each dispute proceed solely on an individual basis, and "the arbitrator may not consolidate more than one person’s claims." But individual complaints are inevitably small, with value too low to justify the top-notch attorneys and experts who would be needed to prove discrimination and explore Airbnb’s responsibility.

Courts, not arbitrations, are the proper way to resolve these important disputes. The appearance of legitimacy would be much improved if decisions were rendered by a judge and jury chosen through formal government processes. With access to Airbnb documents and records as provided by law, aggrieved users would be able to search for information to support their claims — giving them a fair chance to assemble the evidence they need. With appeals, a series of judges would assess the situation and correct any errors in legal reasoning. And with a single case assessing the rights of a group of similar users, economies of scale would allow users to get the specialized assistance they need to have a real shot.

I don’t know that aggrieved guests or hosts would prevail against Airbnb on matters of discrimination. In some respects, such a case would break new ground, and Airbnb would forcefully argue that it is individual hosts, not Airbnb itself, whose actions are out of line. But Airbnb should face such complaints on the merits, not hide behind a contract that prevents users from bringing suit.

Airbnb told the New York Times that "these [arbitration] provisions are common." Certainly many companies require that customers arbitrate any disputes. But Airbnb’s service is special, raising persistent and serious concerns about discrimination (among other issues). These heightened sensitivities call for a different approach to dispute resolution — and a dispute system that works for credit cards and cell phone plans may not be right for questions of race, equality, and justice.

Airbnb also told the Times that "we believe ours [our arbitration agreement] is balanced and protects consumers." But it’s hard to see the balance in a contract that only takes rights away from users. Were the contract silent on dispute resolution, users could sue in any court authorized by law to hear the dispute, but instead Airbnb insists that not a single court, in any jurisdiction nationwide, can adjudicate any dispute pertaining to users’ relationships with Airbnb.

The incomplete benefits of Instant Book

Airbnb hosts are able to discriminate against disfavored guests because Airbnb’s standard process gives hosts discretion as to which guests to accept. Airbnb’s Instant Book feature thus offers a potential mechanism to reduce discrimination: When hosts pre-promise to accept any interested guest who agrees to pay, there’s much less opportunity to discriminate. Nonetheless, Instant Book addresses only a portion of the problem.

The biggest weakness of Instant Book is that only a fraction of properties offer this feature. A guest who wants to use Instant Book to avoid discrimination is thus accepting a much narrower range of properties. Airbnb periodically encourages hosts to try Instant Book, and it seems the proportion of properties with Instant Book is increasing, but slowly. That’s unsatisfactory: Guests shouldn’t have to choose between fair treatment and a full range of properties.

A second problem with Instant Book is that it serves only to protect guests from discrimination by hosts, but not to protect hosts from discrimination by guests. My research indicates that both problems are real, and Instant Book does nothing about the second.

A final concern is the prospect of cancellations that undo the anti-discrimination benefits of Instant Book. In principle a host could invoke Airbnb’s cancellation feature to reject a disfavored guest whose request was automatically confirmed by Instant Book. That’s exceptionally disruptive to the guest, taking away a booking which had already been paid in full and presented, to the guest and in Airbnb records, as confirmed. These problems are more than speculative; among others, the racist North Carolina host who canceled a black guest’s confirmed reservation had initially accepted that reservation via Instant Book.

To its credit, Airbnb requires a host to provide a reason when cancelling an Instant Book reservation, and Airbnb limits such cancellation to three per year. But the cancellations are penalty-free without any charge to hosts or any indication on a host’s profile page. (In contrast, when non-Instant Book hosts cancel reservations, they are charged fees and are penalized in profiles and on search results.) Moreover, three cancellations may suffice for many hosts to implement discriminatory preferences. If a host receives only occasional requests from the guests it seeks to discriminate against, the host could cancel those guests’ Instant Book stays with relative impunity.

Looking forward

Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia recently explained the site’s widespread use of photos of guests and hosts: "[A]nytime we could show a face in our service, we would … – in search results, on profiles, on the actual homepage.” Certainly photos are visually appealing and add some information. But the risk of discrimination appears to be unavoidable when photos are presented before a transaction is confirmed. No one would tolerate a hotel that required prospective guests to submit photos — nor a traditional bed-and-breakfast that did so. Nor should this approach be used online. The risk of discrimination is just too great relative to any benefit the photos may provide.

In January 2014, Mike Luca and I suggested the changes Airbnb should make to prevent discrimination:

[T]here is no fundamental reason why a guest need s see a host’s picture in advance of making a booking — nor does a guest necessarily even need to know a host’s name (from which race may be infered…). Indeed, Airbnb itself prohibits (and run s software to prevent) hosts and guests from sharing email addresses or phone numbers before a booking is made, lest this information exchange let parties contract directly and avoid Airbnb fees. Given Airbnb’s careful consideration of what information is available to guests and hosts, Airbnb might consider eliminating or reducing the prominence of host photos: It is not immediately obvious what beneficial information these photos provide, while they risk facilitating discrimination by guests. Particularly when a guest will be renting an entire property, the guest’s interaction with the host will be quite limited, and we see no real need for Airbnb to highlight the host’s picture.

Two and a half years later, the proposal remains appropriate, easy, and effective. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky says the company "needs help solving" discrimination on Airbnb . Perhaps our longstanding proposal can be of assistance.