Airbnb rental hosts in the state of Oregon will no longer be able to see guests’ names before approving their bookings, according to a new plan announced by the company.
The policy update is specific to Oregon, for now, and was born out of a lawsuit in which three Black women from the Portland, Oregon, area alleged the rental site’s use of names and photographs allowed for racial discrimination, violating the state’s public accommodation laws.
The suit was settled in 2019, and starting on 31 January, Airbnb announced this week, hosts in Oregon will only see a guest’s initials until their booking is confirmed, only after which their full name will be visible. The update will be in effect for at least two years, the company said.
“As part of our ongoing work, we will take any learnings from this process and use them to inform future efforts to fight bias,” the company added.
Complaints about discrimination on Airbnb aren’t new. In 2015 and 2016, the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack circulated, highlighting racism experienced by some of the platform’s users. Many Black users discussed being denied bookings until they changed their names online or used generic profile photos. Some even found that using photos of white individuals could game the system.
A study conducted by Harvard Business School researchers in 2016 affirmed these stories through data. After studying 6,400 Airbnb listings in five American cities, the study concluded that “requests from guests with distinctively African American names are roughly 16% less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively white names”.
Advocates called the Oregon policy change a good start, but cautioned that the adjustment shouldn’t be heralded as the end of racism on Airbnb.
“We believe that measuring discrimination is crucial to eliminating it, and we think all tech companies should take responsibility for that,” said Johnny Mathias, deputy senior campaign director at the racial justice organization Color of Change.
In order to know if changes are meaningful, Mathias continued, companies should measure the outcomes and be transparent with their findings. In other words, making a gesture without numbers to back up its efficacy is not useful. “I’m glad that Oregon has specific public accommodation laws that provided for this suit,” he added. “But whether this specific change is the most important change to ensure [they’re] addressing discrimination on the Airbnb platform, we’ll only know if we see the research.”
As with most emerging tech platforms, rules and regulations are often playing catch-up with the technologies they’re supposed to govern. In their study, the Harvard researchers noted that anti-discrimination housing laws that hold sway over traditional landlords – such as those renting large apartment buildings – are often lost on the smaller-scale landlords who use Airbnb.
Airbnb has resisted doing away with names and photos altogether, arguing that they add to the sense of community on the site. But the company has taken some steps to fight the bias on its platform. In 2018, it announced that it would hide guests’ profile photos until after their booking was accepted. It also requires that all hosts and guests to agree to the Airbnb Community Commitment, “which requires everyone who uses Airbnb to treat others without discrimination and with respect”. And in 2020, Airbnb launched Project Lighthouse, an initiative created to measure bias on its own platform, with Color of Change and other civil rights organizations.