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Monday, February 26, 2024

Airbnb’s work to fight bias and discrimination

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Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that lasting change often begins with tough, honest conversations, genuine self-reflection, followed by bold action. In the last half-century, we’ve made tremendous progress toward realizing our civil rights and equal opportunity goals. But we still have a long way to go. We need to talk about, and then take action to end, the discrimination, prejudice and inequality that still exist — not only in our laws, but also in our schools, our neighborhoods and our businesses.

That’s in part because the way in which bias manifests itself keeps evolving. At the beginning of this century, few predicted that the internet would become such a pervasive tool for cyber bullying or religious extremism or would so often be used to communicate and enable discrimination and division.

Airbnb is no exception. Their mission is to connect people from around the globe and foster a sense of belonging. But despite those good intentions, some Airbnb users have been turned away from booking accommodations because of their name, background or skin color. Understanding that one case is one too many, the company reached out to me and to Laura Murphy, the former chief of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, to work with them to determine how to greatly diminish — with the goal of eliminating — discrimination on its platform.

I agreed to help because from the first time we spoke, Airbnb’s leadership team was willing to have that tough, uncomfortable conversation, and because they had the humility and courage to ask for help in the first place. That told me that their goal was to fix the problem, not simply to respond to public criticism.

Throughout the last three months, under Laura’s leadership, Airbnb has conducted a rigorous, thorough and inclusive review of its technology and its policies. The review included conversations with employees at every level of the company, Airbnb hosts and victims of discrimination, and outside experts. It also included outreach to civil rights organizations, regulators and federal and state lawmakers. The result is one of the most detailed and honest reviews of a company’s role in fighting discrimination, including where efforts fell short, that I’ve ever witnessed.           

That review — which I believe provides a model for our growing “sharing economy” and the role internet companies play in unintentionally enabling discrimination — led to some very real steps Airbnb will take to begin solving the problem.

A few examples: The company will now require everyone who uses Airbnb to commit to oppose discrimination and treat everyone in the Airbnb community with dignity and respect. It has developed new tools to crack down on anyone who violates that commitment and put together a team of engineers who will work full time to root out bias on the site. Those who do not share Airbnb’s value of inclusivity and continue to discriminate will be excluded from the platform.

The company is also taking aggressive steps to make all guests feel welcome. For example, Airbnb will help any guest who experiences discrimination on Airbnb find a place to stay. Additionally, inclusivity training is being made available to all hosts. These are among the affirmative steps Airbnb is taking to deal with these issues.

There are no overnight solutions to remedy centuries-old societal prejudices and challenges. If there were, I would not have been asked to join this tough conversation and rigorous review. But that’s the point: I was asked. These difficult conversations have begun, and Airbnb has committed to continuing this effort until the problem is solved. Even more importantly, by encouraging individuals from different countries to share their homes and perspectives, Airbnb is encouraging this sort of transformational dialogue and bridge building all across the world.

Our economy and our country are evolving, mostly for the better. But, where we aren’t moving forward in our fight for progress, we all have to take a role in addressing discrimination where it exists. I believe Airbnb has done that, and while the effort is still a work in progress, this work will lead to better policies and technologies that will bring us together and ultimately end discrimination.

Eric Holder served as the 82nd attorney general of the United States and was the first African-American to hold the position.

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