Measuring Discrimination on the Airbnb Platform

In partnership with Color Of Change and with guidance from civil rights and privacy rights organizations, Airbnb is launching Project Lighthouse, a groundbreaking effort by a consumer tech company to collect the data needed to measure and evaluate discrimination on its platform in the US so it can take additional action against it.

In partnership with Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization with millions of members, and with guidance from civil rights and privacy rights organizations, Airbnb will launch a groundbreaking project to measure and fight bias and discrimination. The findings will inform the creation and updates of tools and policies to help combat racial discrimination and bias that Black users and other people of color have faced when using Airbnb. The data collected in the United States for Project Lighthouse will be handled in a way that protects people’s privacy and be used exclusively for anti-discrimination work.

This project will measure discrimination based on perception, using a privacy-centric methodology that determines the race someone might associate with a first name and profile photo. These perceptions will be aggregated and used to identify and measure discrepancies in people’s experiences on the platform that could be a result of discrimination and bias. Data privacy advocates and experts have provided guidance to help ensure this data is not associated with an individual’s Airbnb account. The methodology is publicly available in a technical paper for other companies who want to detect and remediate bias and discrimination on their platforms.

“We have made significant progress in the last few years to address painful stories of individuals who had requests to book a listing rejected and other negative experiences because of their race. Our purpose is to create belonging, and even one incident is an affront to our values. We have a responsibility to do more. We are honored to partner with Color Of Change to help us take this work to the next level, to help us understand fully when discrimination occurs, how unconscious bias is manifested on the platform, and the effectiveness of our policies. You cannot fix bias without measuring it first,” said Brian Chesky, Airbnb Co-Founder and CEO. “In addition to our ongoing diversity and anti-discrimination efforts, as we grapple with the effects of COVID-19, now more than ever we need to be a platform for economic empowerment that can help hosts, including Black residents, keep their homes and avoid displacement from their communities.”

The findings will be used to examine and address disparities in how Black users and other people of color experience Airbnb, out of fear of mistreatment or due to discrimination and bias. Areas include, for example:

  • The reservation process, through search, request, acceptance and cancellation;
  • Reviews from their hosts and guests; and
  • Contact with Airbnb customer support and other lines of support.

This project has been in development for nearly two years with support and input from Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC, Center for Democracy & Technology, Color Of Change, League of United Latin American Citizens – LULAC, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Action Network, The Leadership Conference, and Upturn.

“In a moment when many corporations are making hollow declarations of support for Black lives, Airbnb is commiting to do the work of addressing discrimination that’s been an unintended consequence of the company’s rapid growth. Our partnership with Airbnb on this project has been years in the making, and has led to tangible policy developments to reduce discrimination that should serve as a model for Airbnb’s peer tech companies,” said Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson. “Silicon Valley has a long way to go to constructively engage with civil rights groups by proactively, not reactively, seeking out our expertise to build platforms that serve Black people instead of harming us. Airbnb is setting an important precedent by taking measurable steps to examine and dismantle discriminatory online systems. In setting this precedent, it is important to understand that there are technology platforms that have already left irreversible marks on Black communities and communities of color around the country that need to be addressed. We will continue to urge Airbnb to thoughtfully engage members of our communities in developing solutions to support long-time Black residents at risk of displacement from their neighborhoods.”

Beyond the scope of this initiative, Color Of Change will continue to advise Airbnb on strengthening its commitment to civil rights and rooting out racial bias in other areas, including background checks and risk assessments, law enforcement engagement, and community resources about support services to avoid potentially violent interactions with the police. Airbnb’s partnership with Color Of Change does not involve any financial arrangement.

“At a time when we cannot rely on government alone to further social justice goals, ‘unusual allies’ become more important than ever. In a world where we have seen data and technology used to foster discrimination, we are pleased to see Airbnb use them to fight bias on its platform. We would all be better served if more companies followed Airbnb’s lead in developing robust internal systems for considering and combatting discrimination issues as products and tools are being designed and before they’re rolled out,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Anti-Discrimination Commitment

Airbnb has consistently engaged in fighting bias and discrimination on its platform since 2016, after its first civil rights audit, authored by Laura Murphy, former Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office and President of Laura Murphy & Associates. Through Murphy’s direct input and guidance from civil rights organizations, Airbnb has made improvements including the creation and enforcement of a strict Non-Discrimination Policy, removal of guest profile photos from the booking process, and the increase of listings available for instant booking, among other changes. Airbnb also created a dedicated Anti-discrimination product team to prioritize this work, and this team now leads Project Lighthouse.

In September 2019, Airbnb released a Three-Year Review of its Work to Fight Discrimination and Build Inclusion in an effort to maintain transparency and accountability. From 2016 through today, over 1.3 million people have declined to agree to Airbnb’s mandatory Community Commitment and Non-Discrimination Policy, and have therefore been denied use of the platform or had their accounts cancelled.


Which experts provided privacy guidance for this project?

This project was designed with guidance from data privacy experts and advocates, including the Center for Democracy & Technology, Dr. Latanya Sweeney and The Data Privacy Lab at Harvard, and Upturn. Airbnb also consulted with Antony Haynes, Associate Dean of Albany Law School and Director of CyberSecurity and Privacy Law, and Cathy O’Neil and Jacob Appel, of algorithmic auditing consultancy ORCAA.

How is data being protected in this project?

The perceived race information generated in this project will be aggregated and only be used to analyze past interactions on the platform, exclusively to develop anti-discrimination work. Therefore, this analysis and project will not affect an individual’s experience on the platform in any way. Only the Anti-discrimination team, Security team, and research partner will have access to this information. As an extra security precaution, this information will be deleted every 30 days. Airbnb will never sell the perceived race information used in this research project. More details are publicly available in a technical paper.  

When does the project start and who will participate?

The project will start on June 30, 2020 and will be limited to U.S.-based hosts and guests. At the start date, users who want to opt-out can do that by turning off the data use settings in their account’s Privacy & sharing page. After a notice period, the data analysis will begin. Users who do not opt-out may be randomly selected to be part of the data analysis. By staying in the project, users will be helping to create a new benchmark to uncover, measure, and fight discrimination on Airbnb.

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