Jun 15, 2020 - Technology

Airbnb's new plan to measure discrimination on its service

Screenshot of Airbnb app

Image courtesy Airbnb

Airbnb will set out to identify and measure racial discrimination experienced by users of its service through a new research project in partnership with Color of Change and other advisers.

Why it matters: “The reason we’re doing this is because we have not achieved our goal of reducing all bias and discrimination on our platform,” Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky tells Axios.

The big picture: Users of Airbnb’s home-sharing service have faced discrimination for years. Frustrated and heartbreaking anecdotes of subtle and overt racism would occasionally surface in social media, but affected customers had little other recourse.

  • “This is not a new issue,” says Chesky. “Presumably, this issue has existed so long as people had the tools to be discerning of who they want to stay with; and then, therefore, they could discriminate.”

Details: Project Lighthouse, as it’s been named, will seek to measure discrimination that travelers and hosts face based on the perception of their race.

  • "The right data to use is perceived race, because… when people deny somebody a home, they don't ask them their background, their nationality, their heritage. They look at them, they make a snap judgment, and the two things that we identified were photo and name,” says Chesky.
  • The study will cover the reservation process, reviews, and interactions with Airbnb’s customer support.
  • The company says it worked with privacy experts to ensure that the data won’t be linked with a user’s Airbnb account. It will be publishing its methodology, and users can also opt out of participating in the study.
  • After it’s completed, the company will publish its findings and data.

What they’re saying: "We get gaslit around whether or not something was racist or not" says Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson. "People say it was something else."

  • "They’re gonna be transparent about the data, which is the most important thing for us," he adds of Project Lighthouse.
  • Robinson also points out that Airbnb has assigned engineers to work on anti-discrimination efforts — a sign in Silicon Valley that the company takes the problem seriously.

Yes, but: A study is one thing, but what Airbnb does afterwards will be the true test of its commitment to combat discrimination.

  • More broadly, Airbnb will have to address discrimination that happens offline, when guests and hosts meet in person — as well as how its service affects the neighborhoods and cities where it operates, potentially deepening existing inequities.

Flashback: In 2016, the company enlisted former attorney general Eric Holder to investigate and assemble a report on the issue.

  • Since then, Airbnb has rolled out an anti-discrimination policy it requires all users to agree to.
  • It has also experimented with other approaches, such as downplaying users’ photos and names, and increasing the number of accommodations available via “Instant Booking” to decrease opportunities for discrimination.
  • Still, the company has lacked a way to measure whether these efforts have been effective, says Chesky. "Even if we'd made a lot of progress, it would be hard to know," he says.

What's next: As a future data-gathering project, Chesky says he wants to capture in-the-moment data, probably through the Airbnb app, about what he calls "moments of truth" for guests — booking, check-in, settling in (say, the morning after arrival), and checking out.

  • "How comfortable did you feel?" Chesky said. "These are moments when the most issues happen, and also the most delight happens."

Meanwhile: Chesky reiterated to Axios that a move for Airbnb to go public in 2020 is not off the table — and, as we previously reported, internal conversations on a potential IPO have resumed.

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