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Airbnb hides guest names from hosts to fight racial bias – but only for Oregon residents

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 4, 2022

Beginning Jan. 31, hosts on the short-term vacation rental app Airbnb in Oregon will see only the initials of a prospective guest until the booking is confirmed.  (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)
Beginning Jan. 31, hosts on the short-term vacation rental app Airbnb in Oregon will see only the initials of a prospective guest until the booking is confirmed. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)
By Aaron Gregg Washington Post

Airbnb is limiting the way guest profiles are displayed on its platform to guard against racial discrimination by its hosts – but only if you’re from Oregon.

Beginning Jan. 31, hosts on the short-term vacation rental app will see only the initials of a prospective guest until the booking is confirmed. The policy stems from a voluntary settlement agreement Airbnb reached in 2019 with three Oregon women, who claimed that requiring users to disclose their full names and photos allowed hosts to discriminate against Black users in violation of the state’s public accommodation laws.

In a Dec. 22 blog post, the company said the new policy is part of a broader set of efforts to root out racial bias on its platform.

Airbnb requires users to agree to a set of community guidelines that prohibit discrimination, and it has changed the way profile pictures are displayed to make bookings more objective. In 2020, it launched Project Lighthouse, an analytical tool that can be used to determine whether certain groups of users have acceptance rates that differ significantly from the norm.

“While we have made progress, we have much more to do and continue working with our Hosts and guests, and with civil rights leaders to make our community more inclusive,” the company wrote in an unsigned statement.

The new policy applies only to guests from Oregon, an Airbnb spokeswoman said, which is consistent with the 2019 settlement. The company uses guests’ billing Zip codes and IP addresses at the time they initiate a booking request to determine whether they reside in the state. That means a Portland resident renting an Airbnb in Manhattan would have their name hidden, for example, while a New Yorker renting a place in the Rose City would not.

Anti-discrimination activists said the Oregon rule could portend meaningful change, depending on what Airbnb does next.

“If they take this, they analyze it using Project Lighthouse, they report those findings to the public, and then consider whether to implement this policy more broadly, that’s what would be worth praising and applauding,” said Johnny Mathias, deputy senior campaigns director for the nonprofit advocacy group Color of Change.

The policy follows years of pressure from activists and aggrieved guests, who have shared anecdotes on social media with the “AirbnbWhileBlack” hashtag and who say Airbnb has unwittingly created a new forum for an age-old form of discrimination.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, which are defined as “any inn, hotel, motel, or other establishment which provides lodging to transient guests.” But it exempts establishments in which the host is renting out a personal residence, as long as the property is located within a building containing no more than five rooms for rent.

But Oregon’s anti-discrimination law applies to “any place of public accommodation.” It was under that statute that a Clackamas County woman sued Airbnb for discrimination, alleging the requirement to include a full name and profile picture with a booking request enabled discrimination.

“The effect of Airbnb’s booking policies is that Airbnb’s public accommodation – its service of offering to the public, among other things, lodgings – discriminates and violates (Oregon law), because Airbnb offers a different service to African Americans than it does to whites,” according to a class-action complaint filed in 2017.

Airbnb said at the time that the suit had no merit, but later agreed to a settlement.

The lawsuit drew on research suggesting that racial associations with certain names can provide an avenue for bias, even when the person being discriminated against never comes face-to-face with the person who discriminates against them.

A 2003 experiment from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that resumes with “white-sounding” names at the top were more likely to prompt callbacks from companies advertising open positions. Job applicants with white-sounding names typically had to send out 10 job applications to get one callback; those with common African American names had to send about 15.

In one study, researchers at Harvard Business School sent out 6,400 messages to Airbnb hosts in five locales – Washington, D.C., Baltimore, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Dallas – from fake accounts looking to rent homes under distinctly Black and distinctly white names.

The study uncovered “widespread discrimination” against Black guests by nearly every kind of host.

When asked whether the company would consider broadening the policy to other states, an Airbnb spokeswoman said: “Given that the impact of this change is unknown, the implementation will be limited.” She added that the company plans to evaluate the impact of this change to “understand if there are learnings from this work that can inform future efforts to fight bias.”

Mathias, the Color of Change director, said Airbnb has been better than its peers when it comes to understanding how its platform could be used for discrimination.

The big difference between our engagement with Airbnb and our engagement with other companies, he said, “is they often do come to us first, before the harm has occurred, and (say) ‘We want to fix this.’ ”

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