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Airbnb releases new plan to combat racial bias

A series of new policies aim to reduce discrimination after widespread user complaints

After months of criticism over accusations of racial bias by its users, online rental marketplace Airbnb just released a new policy aimed to reduce discrimination on its platform and encourage diversity. In a 32-page report issued after a 3-month internal review, the company has agreed to a series of measures, including a more stringent non-discrimination policy, plans to diversify the company's own workforce, and increased implicit bias training for its hosts.

One of the main complaints lodged agains the company was the use of photos on the site, which critics contend contributed to discrimination and implicit bias. The company chose to continue to use photos of users going forward, arguing they are necessary to create trust between hosts and guests, but says they will experiment with making images less prominent on the site, instead promoting user reviews to be more visible.

"After thoroughly analyzing this issue, I came to believe that Airbnb guests should not be asked or required to hide behind curtains of anonymity when trying to find a place to stay," writes the report's author, Laura Murphy, a former ACLU layer whose consultancy led the company review. "Technology can bring us together and technology shouldn’t ask us to hide who we are. Instead, we should be implementing new, creative solutions to fight discrimination and promote understanding."

Other changes include:

  • The service will automatically block out calendar dates once a host rejects a guest due to unavailability, which will hopefully prevent users from rejecting someone based on their appearance, then allowing someone else to book that date
  • Airbnb promises to find alternative accommodations for users experiencing discrimination, even if they need to pay for a standard hotel room
  • Hosts can’t decline guests based on color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status (those in a shared space can requests other in the space are of the same gender)
  • Emphasizing instant booking

The company will also post a new nondiscrimination policy, which users will need to agree to beginning November 1.

We believe that no matter who you are, where you are from, or where you travel, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community. 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.

Chicagoan Quirtina Crittenden, the originator of #AirbnbWhileBlack, the hashtag that helped generate widespread media attention around the issue, has said the company's move is a step in the right direction.

Airbnb's efforts to combat discrimination on their platform is appreciated. There are other areas they can improve, but it's a start.

In an email to users, CEO Brian Chesky wrote: "Bias and discrimination have no place on Airbnb, and we have zero tolerance for them. Unfortunately, we have been slow to address these problems, and for this I am sorry."