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Airbnb Agrees To Make Reforms After Allegations Of Discrimination


Airbnb, the company that lets people rent out their homes and rooms to strangers over the Internet, has a new message for its users. It's not OK to reject potential guests because you're uncomfortable with their race, religion or sexual orientation. The company says it's making moves to stop or reduce discrimination. NPR's Aarti Shahani has more.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: As it works right now, when you go to book a place on Airbnb, the host sees a very big picture of your face. The problem with that...

LAURA MURPHY: People often make judgments about other human beings based solely on their photo.

SHAHANI: Laura Murphy, a civil rights advocate, was hired by Airbnb to study bias on the site and authored the report published today about how to fix it.

MURPHY: And so instead of seeing someone's big face as soon as you receive a request from a potential guest, Airbnb's going to experiment with you seeing other things about that person.

SHAHANI: The company won't get rid of profile pictures altogether. Airbnb is integrated with Facebook, which has made the profile picture a standard practice that many people like. But the hope is that users will have fewer knee-jerk reactions when photos are less prominent and other things are more prominent, like interests. I'm a foodie. I bike. I love photography - or booking history.

MURPHY: And what a great guest they've been, if they've been a great guest.

SHAHANI: Airbnb is also taking an unusual step for a tech company, creating a team of engineers - about a dozen of them, Murphy says - dedicated to tracking human behavior not to sell ads but to look for discrimination. Airbnb does not collect race data. Users don't check a box, so the tech team will work to discern if you're white, black, Asian, Latino using your ZIP code, census data and possibly facial recognition tools. And they'll monitor.

MURPHY: What kinds of people are being accepted for a rental? What kinds of people are being rejected for a rental?

SHAHANI: Some Airbnb users have had horror stories of going on vacation, showing up to a place that's fully paid for and getting locked out on the spot. Now the company says if it happens to you, if you believe you're being discriminated against, call customer service, and they'll transfer you to a specialized team who will find you another place in Airbnb or a hotel rental nearby. These changes did not come out of thin air. The San Francisco-based company was under pressure.

RASHAD ROBINSON: It was about three and a half - it was about four months ago that we flew out to the bay to meet with Airbnb.

SHAHANI: Rashad Robinson is executive director of Color of Change, an activist group. He's had board members who'd try to book on Airbnb and get rejected.

ROBINSON: The person who they were trying to get a room from said that the place was booked even while the room was being kept open.

SHAHANI: It was right on the screen, clear as day. The room was available. Robinson says when he first approached Airbnb, he got shrugged off. But then the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack took off. Color of Change put out a petition and got back more than signatures. They got stories from their members whom you could call Airbnb users.

ROBINSON: Yes, or they want to be Airbnb users and unfortunately are experiencing a business that didn't want their business.

SHAHANI: Robinson thinks that will change. In the coming weeks, Airbnb users will be required to accept new terms of service with beefed-up antidiscrimination language. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.