Airbnb, Test Your Hosts for Bias
Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on December 1, 2016
Airbnb, as with some other of its fellow peer-to-peer "disruptive" tech solutions, has come under fire from a few directions over the past years. Along with concerns that it could be causing needed housing to be taken off the market in areas where prices are already tight, and essentially allowing commerical hotel operators to operate unregulated and untaxed, it has also faced such strong accounts of racial discrimination that entrepreneurs saw a market niche for Airbnb alternatives for Black travelers.
In response, Airbnb has recently announced a set of anti-discrimination policies, including a "community commitment," which basically involves having hosts promise not to make decisions based on race, ethnicity, national origin, or sexual orientation. As a statement of principles, it's a fairly clear and explicit one, and that's a good thing. Using your leadership role to set a tone for your organization does matter. But I think other proposals are likely to matter more, and Airbnb could go further.
One limit to the community commitment is that discrimination happens against hosts too, with Black hosts commanding lower prices, but Airbnb cannot make its travelers promise not to discriminate where they choose to stay (though it could give them an exhortation to be open-minded when they sign up), since every location is unique.
The authors of the study on hosts' experiences suggest downplaying host photos—which is in fact one of Airbnb's stated goals. This is good news, though just how much change it will make is unclear. I wonder how far it will be able to get with "downplaying" the photos in a world where not having a photo associated with a profile has become strongly associated with being a "spammer," "troll," or "cheater." I don't think it will get rid of photos, but substanially downplaying them might reduce cases that are based on the more mild ends of implicit bias.
When it comes to discriminating against potential guests, Airbnb says it is increasing its "enforcement" in some unspecificed way, and is also pushing hard to increase the use of the "Instant Booking" option, where hosts do not have to pre-approve a guest. That latter move should have a practical impact, and is probably worth more than a million community commitments.
But presuming there will be substantial remaining listings that are not instant book (and that the percent of hosts who don't acccept instant booking who want to be discriminatory might be higher) there is something else Airbnb could do, if it chose to be seriously proactive: It could take a page from the fair housing playbook and do paired testing. This would involve sending requests from guests with otherwise similar profiles and needs, but different races or other categories of concern, to the same host (even for the same days, with the first "guest" canceling if they were accepted). If one was accepted and the other not, there could be warnings issued, and follow-up testing, with an eventual option to deactivate an account if there was a consistent pattern.
I don't doubt it's a massive project. It might well be too much for underfunded advocates without access to Airbnb's data to undertake, but I would like to suggest that if Airbnb wants to prove that it means what it professes, it could voluntarily institute paired testing itself, in response to complaints as well as at random, with transparent results. For a company with such sophisticated tech at its disposal, I'll bet that if it wanted to make paired testing work, it could. (Perhaps Airbnb could even tap into the expertise of some fair housing organizations for the non-tech design of the program and third-party oversight, and render itself a little less underfunded in the process.)
Of course having affordable housing taken off the market is likely to also have a racially disparate impact, so if Airbnb really wanted to think big about its equity impact they should also crack down on commercial hosts offering multiple listings and stop fighting against being held the same rules as other hotel operators. I won't hold my breath on those.
(Image: By smile_kerry, via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)
[Correction: An earlier version of this article repeated an incorrect statement from a footnote in this law journal article stating that the National Fair Housing Alliance does not consider paired testing feasible in this scenario. That is not NFHA's position. In fact, NFHA says large volume testing is practical. The law journal's footnote was a misinterpretation of a statement the NFHA had made about the feasibility of lodging hundreds of individual administrative complaints against people who post discriminatory advertisements via online rental or sale sites versus holding the sites liable for such illegal ads.]
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Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.