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Airbnb announces booking policy change to head off outcry over persistent racial discrimination

The 'middle-ground' change will affect the way user profile pictures are passed between prospective guests and the platform's hosts.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 12:  Airbnb signage on display at WIRED25 Work: Inside San Francisco's Most Innovative Workplaces on October 12, 2018 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25  )
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 12: Airbnb signage on display at WIRED25 Work: Inside San Francisco's Most Innovative Workplaces on October 12, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25 )

In an ongoing effort to atone for and absolve itself of recent claims of racial discrimination, Airbnb, the online home-sharing platform, announced earlier this week it would no longer allow rental hosts to request a guest’s photo before accepting a booking agreement.

While Airbnb doesn’t currently require guest photos for the millions of individual and private transactions conducted around the globe, many hosts demand that the strangers show a photo identification as a prerequisite to closing a rental contract. But under the new policy, Airbnb will allow hosts the option to ask for a photo only after they’ve accepted the booking.

“We have listened to our community, and while most guests provide a photo, some guests told us they don’t want to share a picture of themselves when booking,” the San Francisco-based company said in a news release on Monday. “We also recognize that concerns have been raised about the potential for photos to be misused in a way that violates our nondiscrimination policy.”

In the wake of a series of incidents and lawsuits alleging racial discrimination by some of its hosts, Airbnb has mounted an aggressive and public campaign to change its image. The company announced last year at the NAACP’s convention in Baltimore that it was working with the civil rights organization’s local chapters to attract members of minority communities as hosts and guests, as well as increasing the racial diversity of its workforce from 9.6 percent to 11 percent by the end of last year. Previously, Airbnb executives hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to assist them in creating a nondiscrimination policy that all participating hosts and guests must agree to support before using the site. 

We also recognize that concerns have been raised about the potential for photos to be misused in a way that violates our nondiscrimination policy.

In less than a decade of operations, Airbnb, which was founded in 2008 and currently operates in more than 50,000 cities in 191 countries and has generated a whopping $2.7 billion in earnings, came under withering fire from racial minorities who complained that they were thwarted from registering or outright denied housing from hosts who didn’t want them as guests in their homes.

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Under provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Tittle II – Public Accommodation, anyone who provides lodging to the public is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. But a dizzying array of stories, which spoke of Airbnb hosts flouting this law by dissuading blacks and other minority group members from applying, or turned away from entering or sleeping in their homes, prompted an outraged public outcry — with many such responses organized on Twitter under the online hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.

In its news release announcing the changes, Airbnb officials acknowledged its revised policy toward photos is a middle-ground compromise between the demands from civil rights groups who believe requiring a photo to book a room makes it easier to discriminate based on race and the desires of rental hosts who want to know more about the people coming into their homes.

“[H]osts have told us that they value profile photos because they can help hosts and guests get to know one another before a trip begins and help hosts recognize guests when they check in,” the statement said. “Additionally, we’ve seen how photos can be a useful tool for enhancing trust and promoting community. We want to balance these concerns.”

Under terms of the revised policy, which the company said will go into effect in coming months:

  • If a guest chooses to provide a profile photo, that profile photo won’t be displayed to the host as part of the booking process until after the booking is confirmed.
  • Airbnb will give hosts the option to ask guests to provide a profile photo prior to booking, which will only be made visible after the host accepts the booking request.
  • As a fairness safeguard, hosts must proactively turn on their request for a photo before receiving a reservation request, even though they won’t see the photo until the process is completed.
  • If a host asks for a profile photo, Airbnb will prompt guests to upload one to their Airbnb profile before they can request to book that host’s particular listing and the photo will not be presented to the host until after the booking is confirmed.
  • If a host cancels a reservation after viewing a guest’s photo, the guest will have an easier way to complain to Airbnb, and hosts violating the policy may be permanently banned from using the site.

Almost immediately after Airbnb announced the changed photo policy, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, praised the company for taking this step and urged the firm to do even more to combat housing discrimination.

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“Airbnb is finally learning what many of its peers in the sharing economy have long realized: when profile pictures play a prominent role in the sharing economy, racial bias runs rampant,” Clarke said in a statement. “Although Airbnb’s policy change is a positive step, the company must do more to truly advance racial equity. In particular, by conducting matched-pair audit testing of large-scale hosts who rent out many units, Airbnb could decrease the burden on victims of discrimination both to know that they have been victimized and to navigate the company’s complaint process.”