Airbnb, Uber And Lyft All Have This One Disturbing Problem

The sharing economy responds to backlash over bias.

Airbnb is serious about preventing discrimination over its service, enacting a new policy that’s just taken effect. As of Nov. 1, all visitors to the site will be presented with a “community commitment” and asked to accept it. If they don’t, they’ll be asked if they want to cancel their accounts. If they choose to cancel, they’ll be able to complete any pre-existing stays, but they won’t be able to rent a property or host a guest after that. The policy reads:

“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.”
— Brian Chesky, Airbnb CEO and co-founder

The initiative aims to course-correct a trend toward racial discrimination on the short-term rental platform. Unlike more anonymous marketplaces like eBay, where users conduct business under fake usernames, Airbnb profiles feature photos and names of renters and hosts. Users most often choose a picture of themselves for their profile pic. Turns out those names and pictures opened the door to racism.

Airbnb’s Chesky: ‘We will work to set an example that other companies can follow.’ | Justin Sullivan/Getty

A Harvard Business School study of New York Airbnb rentals published in February found people with “distinctly African American” names were 16% less likely to have their reservations accepted.

The discrimination costs hosts money, the study found. After canceling a reservation from a black person, hosts only found a replacement reservation a third of the time. The study also found black Airbnb hosts stood to earn less money from renters:

“Black hosts charged approximately 12 percent less for rentals than nonblack hosts — even when the properties were equivalent in terms of location and quality.”
—Carmen Nobel, Harvard Business School

Black people already had an inkling this was going on and have posted complaints under the Twitter hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, as reported by NPR in April.

They aren’t alone. Shadi Petosky, showrunner of the cartoon “Danger & Eggs,” complained in June that she had been denied a lodging because her prospective host worried her 13-year-old son might be made uncomfortable by the presence of a trans person.

Shadi Petosky/Twitter

Though Airbnb’s terms of service did prohibit discrimination, it was around this time that the company sought legal advice to build a stronger policy. Airbnb turned to Eric Holder, the former US Attorney General, and Laura Murphy, former legal head of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In September, Airbnb announced the new community commitment and apologized to its users:

“Unfortunately, we have been slow to address these problems, and for this I am sorry. I take responsibility for any pain or frustration this has caused members of our community. We will not only make this right; we will work to set an example that other companies can follow.”
—Brian Chesky, Airbnb CEO and co-founder

Indeed, Airbnb’s initiative has implications for the whole “sharing economy.” Uber and Lyft are among those relatively loosely-regulated apps that have “disrupted” the transportation and lodging industries and unwittingly allowed discrimination to take place.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Washington recently published a study of 1,500 Uber and Lyft riders. The study found riders with “African-American sounding names” waited 35% longer for rides in Seattle. Overall, drivers were more than twice as likely to cancel ride requests from black Uber users.

The also study found women could expect to have longer journeys, as male drivers took circuitous routes and engaged them in conversation.

“The additional travel that female riders are exposed to appears to be a combination of profiteering and flirting to a captive audience,” the report said.

Sharing economy companies have prospered by taking a big bite out of traditional industries, which have long had civil-rights protections mandated by law. Airbnb took firm, positive steps to fall in line with societal norms, and we hope other sharing economy companies follow suit.

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