Discrimination was top of mind for most everyone at Airbnb’s OpenAir conference in San Francisco this week — including CEO Brian Chesky. Chesky wasn’t listed on the program, but took the stage before the keynote address to address the issue directly. “We have zero tolerance for any amount of discrimination or racism on our platform,” Chesky said. “This is a huge issue for us.”
True enough, racism has become a huge public relations issue for the company over the past weeks. In May, a Virginia man filed a lawsuit against the company under the Fair Housing and Civil Rights Acts saying his civil rights were violated when he was unable to book a room on the site because of his race. Following that, dozens of stories about discrimination on the platform have emerged. Yet while Airbnb is now talking about finding solutions, evidence suggests the problem wasn’t always the company’s top priority. For many, its newfound emphasis comes too little too late.
For example, when Carolina Munoz, a U.S. citizen of Colombian descent, booked a stay in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, in August 2015, she was excited to celebrate her boyfriend’s birthday.
But the seaside weekend at the host Marie’s oceanfront cottage didn’t work out as planned. On the beach, Munoz and her boyfriend encountered one of Marie’s neighbors, who asked them what they were doing there. When Munoz explained that she was a guest at Marie’s Airbnb, the woman accused them of trespassing. The exchange became heated, and, despite Marie’s attempted intervention, both sides ended up calling the police.
“It was really a racial thing,” Munoz told BuzzFeed News over the phone. “She continued to say, 'You have an accent! You’re an illegal!' I’m like, what do I do? I don’t carry my passport when I go to Calvert County, Maryland.”
Munoz and her boyfriend, who is black, ultimately dropped the idea of filing a lawsuit. But they did try repeatedly to contact Airbnb about the encounter. “They never asked me what happened,” Munoz said. “The one thing I want them to do is investigate what happened, ask me my version of events.”
That is, until she started tweeting at the company last week. Munoz and her boyfriend were watching NBC on Sunday night, and they saw Chesky talking about “how inclusive Airbnb is.” The segment reminded her of the incident in Maryland, and, upset, she sent a series of tweets to the company demanding a response.
On Wednesday, 10 months after the incident and a few hours after being reached for comment on this story by BuzzFeed News, spokesperson Nick Papas said an Airbnb employee “spoke with Carolina to apologize for our delayed response and to let her know that we're working to ensure this kind of delayed response doesn't happen again.”
In recent weeks, as more such stories have come to light, Airbnb has made a concerted effort to show that it’s working on what Chesky calls “a really hard problem.” He made similar comments on Twitter and appeared on Dateline NBC. The company released a memo to the Washington Post and others about how it plans to fight discrimination. And, ahead of its conference, Airbnb also announced Airbnb Connect, a recruiting program aimed at increasing diversity on its staff.
“We do face the challenge of racial discrimination. We do face the challenge of unconscious bias,” said VP of Engineering Mike Curtis onstage at OpenAir. “We face the sad realities of the human experience. We do. We are committed to battling this with every tool at our disposal.”
Those tools include an internal review to conclude in September, unconscious bias training for hosts and employees, and even machine learning, which Curtis said could someday be used to automatically identify problematic behavior patterns.
Munoz is far from the only person who had to wait for Airbnb to take action. The host who denied Shadi Petosky, a trans woman, a place to stay wasn’t removed from the platform until a year after the initial complaint. Rohan Gilkes complained to the company when he was unable to book a room in Idaho, but says he didn’t hear from them until two weeks after his Medium post about it went viral. Jasmine Greenaway, a woman who says she filed a complaint formally with the company and tweeted about her experience, says she's still waiting for a response.
In a conversation after his keynote address on Wednesday, Curtis said that until recently, he was unaware that discrimination had become such a widespread issue on the platform. “A lot of this is coming to light now, in a flood,” he said.
On a diversity-focused panel on Wednesday at OpenAir, Ellen Pao, who sued a former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, for gender discrimination and now runs Project Include, compared the situation to what she saw happen at Reddit. She said focus on growth at Reddit took precedence over figuring out how to stymie the “toxic conversations and behaviors” that found a home on the platform.
Leslie Miley, who shared the stage with Pao, argued that few of the people who created Airbnb have experienced the kind of discrimination that the company is under fire for. Miley says he saw the same phenomenon at Twitter, where he was head of product safety. “The reason Twitter was so bad at handling abuse is the people who designed and built Twitter never suffered abuse,” he said onstage. “I think that goes across Reddit and Airbnb.”
At Wednesday’s conference, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia talked about how Airbnb proves that “stranger danger” — the fear that people we don’t know will cause us harm — is just another form of bias.
In fact, a study co-authored by some Stanford researchers and Airbnb’s head of data science found that, while people are more likely to select someone who resembles themselves — married women select married women, single men select single men — a star-based rating system like the one Airbnb uses can actually override that natural tendency — e.g., a single man might choose a five-star married woman over a lower-ranked single man. (The study used the idea of investing in, rather than hosting, an individual as a proxy for trust.)
In other words, Airbnb's rating system (and Uber’s and Amazon’s and anyone else that uses ratings) should make its users trust a more diverse group of people than they would naturally — theoretically, anyway.
But for people like Carolina Munoz and her boyfriend, strangers can be dangerous. “If this woman rents to people of color, and they go to that beach, and they see those people who say, 'You don’t belong here, we’re going to call the cops on you,' that can escalate,” Munoz said. “That situation could have escalated to us being arrested — or worse — within minutes.”
The ultimate issue is that while Airbnb may facilitate transactions on a digital platform, the actual interactions take place very much in person. As Leslie Miley pointed out, that fact turns product safety into personal safety for every human being who uses the site. “Someone at some time at some point is going to get assaulted,” said Miley after his panel. “And that’s going to be a bigger PR nightmare than any hit on growth you might have.”
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O’Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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