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The Sharing Economy’s Racial Profiling Problem Is Going to Court

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

In March of last year, Gregory Selden was planning a weekend trip to Philadelphia with some friends and decided to look for a place to stay on Airbnb. Because the cost per night on the bubbly, app-based platform is typically cheaper than your average hotel fare, the 25-year-old creative talent agent thought it’d be an easy way to save money. So he logged in with his Facebook account and requested to book a spot from a guy named Paul. Paul rejected Selden, who is black. And that’s when things started to get sketchy. A little more than a year later, what began as some innocent weekend vacation planning could become a class-action lawsuit accusing the San Francisco–based company of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

According to a lawsuit Selden filed against the company on May 17, Paul (who is identified by only his first name in the suit) told him the space was booked. But when Selden kept looking, he stumbled upon Paul’s same listing, which remained available. As an experiment, Selden created two fake Airbnb accounts in which he pretended to be white, both of which he says were accepted by Paul on the exact dates Selden had requested under his real identity. He complained to Airbnb and says he received no response. Then, Selden confronted Paul, who allegedly told him that “people like [him] were simply victimizing [himself].” The same platform that Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky once said knew “no boundaries of culture, country or generation” had left Selden out in the cold.

Selden’s encounter is a nasty but increasingly common side effect of the peer-to-peer economy, a network of businesses that has grown on the backs of contractors under the minimal supervision of a few corporate overlords. In a rush to drive up their value, many emerging companies have pooled their resources into scaling up, leaving quality control by the wayside. Where an eager customer service professional once stood, there is now only a measly email address (or, if you’re lucky, an overseas hotline). As a result, companies like Airbnb, the community-based website Nextdoor, and Uber are being criticized for not doing enough to regulate their communities, especially when it concerns discriminatory behavior.

Selden soon learned that his experience was not an isolated incident. After airing his findings on Twitter earlier this month with the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, he inspired hundreds of others to share stories of discrimination that took place under the tech company’s watch.

Selden isn’t the first Airbnb user to run a racial experiment on the platform. Last December, a Harvard study revealed that the rental requests of people with names like Tamika or Darnell were 16 percent less likely to be accepted than were identical users with names like Kristen or Brad. Researchers also found that that non-black hosts requested about 12 percent more in rent than black hosts for similar rentals. Meanwhile, minorities on Nextdoor have complained that users are racially profiling them when reporting suspicious behavior, especially in diverse cities like Oakland. Others have suggested that Uber’s general lack of transparency and private ranking system may enable subtle racism, unbeknownst to the public.

Benjamin Edelman, one of the coauthors of the Harvard Airbnb study, sees a simple solution to reducing discrimination on the platform: anonymity. By concealing the name and photograph of a prospective renter before a host accepts a reservation, he says, Airbnb could prevent any surface judgments based on ethnicity. A similar approach exists at Uber, whose system allows drivers to see only the first name and pickup location of a passenger (but still doesn’t protect drivers from being discriminated against by passengers). Nextdoor, on the other hand, plans to curb racist posts by requiring users who report suspicious behavior to fill out a form that asks for descriptions that go beyond race. As of right now, though, Edelman says he has not seen any changes at Airbnb to address the issues he raised in his study.

“These platforms are ours as a society, to design as we see fit,” Edelman says. “The rules and requirements, both legal and ethical, are developing. So it’s entirely appropriate for concerned users, concerned citizens, and others to speak up and have a view about how Airbnb ought to be designed.”

Airbnb declined to comment on Selden’s lawsuit, but the company has followed a common Silicon Valley path to addressing issues of inclusion. In March it hired longtime civil rights advocate David King III, as director of diversity, to focus on the makeup of the workplace. King addressed the #AirbnbWhileBlack controversy in a recent blog post on the company’s site, pointing to existing features like “Instant Book” that prevent a host from selecting potential renters by race. He also pledged to expand voluntary “unconscious bias” training to a small percentage of hosts and said the company would place more emphasis on reviews — an initiative based on a joint study with Stanford University that focused on building trust, but unsurprisingly, did not examine race.

Those efforts may not be enough to prevent Selden’s class-action lawsuit from going forward. Though Selden’s lawyer Andrew Nyombi says his firm is in the remedial stages of building the suit, he says the outpouring of #AirbnbWhileBlack posts and the Harvard study are proof that others have had similar discriminatory experiences.

“The sharing economy is growing up,” he says. “There are going to be serious questions as to how that affects minorities going forward. We intend on prevailing, and ensuring that being discriminated against while seeking accommodations stops.”

Assuming that Nyombi can gather a large enough class, his success in the case will depend on whether he can show that the company’s website design is either encouraging or facilitating discrimination, according to Nancy Leong, a law professor at the University of Denver who specializes in civil rights. She cited a case against the website, in which a court held that, because the website included details like marital status and sexual orientation, the company was liable for the actions of its users.

For the most part, Leong thinks many of these complaints would be quashed if sharing-economy businesses designed their platforms more thoughtfully. Anonymity for Airbnb, for instance, would go a long way to reducing bias, but she admits it also goes against Airbnb’s (and Silicon Valley’s) entire feel-good business model, which emphasizes personal connections and local wisdom.

“It would maybe undermine one of the things that makes Airbnb attractive to people,” she says. “I wonder if people would be a little more hesitant to rent their properties out.” (Chesky clearly sees this as an issue, declaring in 2013 that “anonymity has no place in the future of Airbnb or the sharing economy.”)

“Obviously,” Leong added, “the ideal situation would be if everybody just stopped being racist.”

This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 20, 2016.