26 October 2016
Researchers say anonymizing profiles could help eliminate discrimination against Arbnb renters. Photo: Reuters
Researchers say anonymizing profiles could help eliminate discrimination against Arbnb renters. Photo: Reuters

Study finds racial discrimination by Airbnb hosts

Discrimination is a growing problem for Airbnb guests, according to a study by Harvard University which says renters with African American-sounding names have a harder time booking reservations.

Life is tough if you’re a black guest on Airbnb, said Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard and one of the study’s authors, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg.

“Particularly when you compare it to the baseline of the way things used to be. If you’re a black guest, you just make a reservation at the Marriott.”

Researchers set up 6,400 fake profiles of Airbnb guests and assigned them stereotypically white or black names, based on Massachusetts birth certificate data from the 1970s.

None of the guest profiles had identifying pictures.

They used the accounts to request bookings with hosts in five cities — Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.

Airbnb hosts decide whom they want to rent to; requests from white guests got “yes” responses 50 percent of the time, against 42 percent for black applicants.

For its part, Airbnb says it doesn’t support discrimination.

“Airbnb is one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world,” a spokesperson said in a statement sent to Bloomberg.

The study comes from the same researchers who in 2014 discovered racial discrimination against hosts.

That study found non-black renters could be charge 12 percent more, on average, holding everything else constant.

The differential in the new study is less stark but still statistically significant, Edelman said.

“Anything more than zero is something we should aspire to fix,” he said.

In both cases, the researchers suggested Airbnb’s design is the culprit, as real-name policies can lead to bias.

Studies have found similar discrimination toward black-sounding names in hiring, for example.

Airbnb could, however, fix the problem by anonymizing profiles.

The site “could conceal guest names”, the researchers wrote in the paper.

“Communications on eBay’s platform have long used pseudonyms and automatic salutations, so Airbnb could easily implement that approach.”

The authors also suggested that Airbnb expand Instant Book, a feature that allows hosts to accept guests without pre-screening.

Airbnb says Instant Book is used in one in five listings, up from one in 12 in 2014.

Airbnb requires all hosts to include profile pictures and urges its users to fill out detailed personal profiles.

– Contat us at [email protected]


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