Airbnb rolls out changes to curb widespread racism

Steps include downplaying display of users' photos and promoting instant bookings

SAN FRANCISCO • Online rental marketplace Airbnb will address reports of widespread racial discrimination against non-white guests by displaying photos less prominently on its website, promoting instant bookings and changing some of its technology, according to a report commissioned by the company.

The report followed months of criticism of Airbnb, sparked partly by comments under Twitter hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack about discrimination against black people.

"Bias and discrimination have no place on Airbnb, and we have zero tolerance for them," chief executive officer Brian Chesky wrote in an e-mail to users. "Unfortunately, we have been slow to address these problems, and for this I am sorry."

Before the end of the year, Airbnb will roll out changes to its reservation request system that emphasise trip details, reviews and verified IDs while testing various formats that downplay users' photos, said the report from Laura Murphy & Associates that was released on Thursday.

San Francisco-based Airbnb will also expand its instant booking programme, which allows guests who meet preferences preset by hosts to make reservations without prior approval, to one million of its two million listings by January.

Under that programme, hosts can require guests to provide Air- bnb with government-issued ID or have a 4.5 out of 5 star rating to be approved for booking. Hosts can also cancel bookings without paying a fee if they have issues with guests' behaviour.

The company will also implement technology that prevents hosts from booking new guests if they tell another guest their listing is unavailable for the same timeframe.

Starting from Nov 1, Airbnb users must agree to treat fellow members without bias regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age.

The company will make its anti-bias training programme available online and will highlight hosts who participate. Anti-bias training is mandatory for all staff.

Airbnb has introduced hiring rules designed to increase diversity among senior-level positions and is retraining customer service representatives on its diversity policy.

The changes received mixed reviews from civil rights organisations and other critics.

Mr Rashad Robinson, executive director of anti-discrimination organisation Color of Change, called Airbnb's plans a victory for activists and individuals who sparked the protests. Earlier this year, Color of Change sent a letter to Airbnb executives demanding they take action to address discrimination complaints.

But Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law president Kristen Clarke said creating a policy eliminating the use of photos altogether prior to booking would have made the greatest difference. "The company's reliance on photos prior to the confirmation stage will allow discrimination to continue rearing its ugly head," said Ms Clarke, a former Airbnb guest who has written about her experience with discrimination on the site.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2016, with the headline 'Airbnb rolls out changes to curb widespread racism'. Print Edition | Subscribe