The Gaping Loopholes in Airbnb’s Fight Against Racism

There is no denying the existence of racism against guests on Airbnb and similar vacation rental platforms. It has been the source of repeated testing and frequently makes news headlines. The extent of that discrimination and its prevalance across the platforms may be subject to debate, but it’s existence – perhaps sporadic, perhaps continuous – is not.

Airbnb hosts are less likely to accept reservations from black guests. [Chart courtesy of American Economic Journal.]

Airbnb likely does not HAVE to do anything to fight against discrimination (see the Communications Decency Act). But Airbnb, as a business, carefully treds the line between a simple technology platform and a certified booking agent. As such, its involvement in any given reservation can at times feel tangential (like when they refuse to help you kick out a squatter) and at other times controlling (like when they wrongfully refund a guest in full on their own discretion). After all, they are just the “platform”. But if Airbnb wants to tow the line and get involved, it should do so in a meaningful way – and with Host’s input and advice! 

Airbnb has laudably made it clear that fighting against racism is one of their key missions, and starting this month (September 2020) they are finally launching Project Lighthouse – an attempt to uncover, measure and overcome discrimination on the platform. Airbnb has been working on Project Lighthouse for several years, and hopes that it will be an important step in bolstering their Nondiscrimination Policy. (Heads up, unless you physically “opted out” of Project Lighthouse, it appears Airbnb will be using and sharing your information and hosting data with third parties and organizations to help analyze and create new policies.) 

While Airbnb is doing great job in including organizations like the Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC, Center for Democracy & Technology, Color Of Change, The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, LULAC, the NAACP, National Action Network, and Upturn in project lighthouse – it is seemingly not including any hosting organizations like the Vacation Rental Management Association or…cough cough…HostGPO. Presumably, many of the hosts in our community have relevant experience and knowledge that could help shape these future policies. However, Airbnb has certainly been trending towards discouraging professional hosting and perhaps hosting communities, at least publicly.

One way we can help Project Lighthouse, if we were included, is by pointing out some of the gaping loopholes in Airbnb’s current nondiscrimination policies – which they may or not be aware of – in an attempt to have them properly addressed and considered moving forward.

Here’s a quick list of what Airbnb has done already to address discrimination:

  • A nondiscrimination policy: Everyone who uses Airbnb must agree to a Community Commitment and nondiscrimination policy.
  • Profile photo protections: Guests’ profile photos aren’t displayed to hosts until after a booking is confirmed, which is meant to discourage discrimination based on photos.
  • Instant Booking: Instant Book allows a listing to be booked immediately, without being able to “look” at the guest’s profile first.
  • An anti-discrimination team: Airbnb has a specialized team dedicated to making changes to our platform that help prevent and address discrimination.

Here is the HostGPO take of what that actually means (note this is our own opinion and does not reflect the opinion of any individual members):

  • A nondiscrimination policy
    • This is great to have spelled out, but it is not meant to have teeth. Essentially, at least in the US and Europe, this means that listings cannot have language prohibiting certain races from staying or putting conditions on the stay. We imagine, however, that most people are not like Butters from Southpark and generally do not read the fine print of all terms and conditions. Similarly, curbing overt racism is nice, but it is the deep seeded covert racism that may need rooting out.
  • Profile photo protections: 
    • While this was one of most aggressive moves to combat racism, it is a half hearted effort, full of workarounds. When a guest sends a booking request, Airbnb will temporarily block their profile picture from being seen by the host at that time on Airbnb. This does not block any other account from seeing the picture and it does not stop third party property management software from showing it through their APIs. Practically speaking, when a Host gets a booking request on one account, they can log out of their host account, log into another account, and see the user’s profile picture there. While some single-user hosts may not easily be able to do this, many property management companies (or owners) have separate accounts or shared co-hosting accounts that can more easily do this. Moreover, most hosts use third party property management software, which pulls information directly from Airbnb’s API connection. Many of these companies (whether they are actually pulling from certified Airbnb APIs or some bootleg version) are still showing profile pictures on inquiries on their systems. Certainly the current infrastructure inserts a small deterrent, but Airbnb could have easily removed the pictures all together or only show profile pictures to a host after a booking is confirmed (not make them generally available to every host to see). 
  • Instant Booking:
    • This is Airbnb’s second, real swing at prohibiting racism on the platform. It too however, is only a half hearted effort. First, while having “instabook” on may help you appear higher in the search rankings – it is only one factor, and isn’t necessary to have on, especially in more remote areas. Second, Airbnb allows for hosts to have up to three, penalty free cancellations for “any reason”. While this may seem trivial, it certainly can have an effect if – like on a jury selection – a host chooses to use those cancellations in a racist or discriminatory way.
  • An anti-discrimination team:
    • This is great, but it’s what this team does that can make a difference.

While this post barely scratches the surface of these complex issues, the hope is that if Airbnb really desires to be a thought leader in this space, hosts and the hosting community need to be publicly involved in these decisions. Sure, there are other measures that could help, like removing names from bookings altogether and maintaining complete anonymity or vetting hosts before bookings take place – but whether these are used and to what extent they are implemented should be a communal decision in the space. Airbnb runs the risk of continuing to isolate its hosts in making unilateral policy decisions that ironically hosts may be able to help the most in making. We all know that last time Airbnb acted unilaterally without considering hosts – things didn’t go so well. This blog article is not intended to chastise Airbnb for its efforts. Indeed, creating a safe space that is fair and free of discrimination for booking is essential – let hosts help!

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