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Stung by bias claims, Airbnb makes site changes to combat discrimination

Chantel McGee
Getty Images

If you've used Airbnb in the last few months you might have noticed some changes in its interface. That is because the home sharing site is downplaying several features which, according to the company, may be enabling user discrimination.

The company has been experimenting "with reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process, and enhancing other parts of host and guests profiles with objective information," said Christopher Nulty, head of public affairs at Airbnb.

The most noticeable change is on the search listings page, which no longer displays photos of hosts alongside featured images of a home.

The modifications come three years after a Harvard study found that black hosts earn 12 percent less than non-black hosts on the site.

"There are specific types of features that allow for discrimination in an online environment," Michael Luca, a Harvard Business School Professor told CNBC recently. "Pulling the pictures off the front page of search results can have an effect on the decisions people make," he said.

New Airbnb website design, without host images on search listings page. Source: Airbnb.com

Airbnb has assembled a new product team — made up of engineers, data scientists, researchers and designers — that is solely focused on devising solutions that help reduce bias on the site.

"We developed and launched our first experiment in January. The goal of this experiment is to determine whether we can minimize the role of implicit bias...by reducing the prominence of profile photos," said Nulty. The company says it wants to highlight other relevant information about guests and hosts, like traveler reviews and identity verification.

'Marketing fluff' that may not fix the problem


It is a step towards fulfilling some of the promises Airbnb made last year, after a 2016 Harvard study found African American guests are rejected about 16 percent more often than whites on the site.

In response, Airbnb assembled a panel of experts including former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. who along with Laura Murphy, formerly of the ACLU, helped to outline a plan to fight discrimination within its community. The complete strategy was outlined in a report released by Airbnb in September 2016, which detailed the company's plans to "fight discrimination and build inclusion."

Not everyone believes the effort is enough, however.

"The new policy is more marketing fluff than diligent effort to fix the problem," Benjamin Edelman, a Harvard Business School Professor, told CNBC. "There's a simple solution to discrimination at Airbnb — conceal names and photos prior to booking," he said.

Profile photos are the design feature on Airbnb that receive the most criticism, but the company says pictures are an essential part of the user experience. "Profile photos help hosts and guests get to know one another and can serve as an important security feature," the company wrote in its report.

The home-sharing marketplace has also increased the number of instant bookings on the site, which reduces the the chances a host will reject a guest because of a bias. The change also puts Airbnb in a better position to compete against hotels.

"We now have 1.25 million Instant Book listings available," said Nulty. "Instant Book allows certain listings to be booked immediately — without prior host approval of a specific guest."

Yet Luca recommended that the company go one step further and make instant booking a default. "It sends a message that by being a host on the platform you are committed to not rejecting people on the basis of their profile picture or name," he said.



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