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After fierce criticism, Airbnb is finally trying to stop discrimination

Airbnb will expand instant booking and deemphasize profile pictures.

Popular Smart Phone Apps Of 2016 Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

Airbnb may finally be making good on its promise to take swift action to redress recent user complaints of discrimination.

On Thursday, the company announced that starting October 1, it will be implementing an “open doors” policy whereby it will find accommodations for people who were not able to book a listing due to discrimination. The home sharing site aims to make the instant booking feature more accessible, expanding to 1 million instant listings by January 1, 2017.

Airbnb will not be getting rid of profile pictures, citing the need for security. However, the company plans to put less emphasis on profile pictures by “reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process and enhancing other parts of host and guests profiles with objective information.”

“Discrimination is the opposite of belonging, and its existence on our platform jeopardizes this core mission,” Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky wrote in a statement. “Bias and discrimination have no place on Airbnb, and we have zero tolerance for them.”

Racial discrimination claims surfaced on social media in July 2015 when Quirtina Crittenden, a black woman, chronicled her experience on the site using the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. Rental properties consistently denied her request on the grounds that they were booked, though those listings remained available on their corresponding calendars.

The hashtag went viral in May after users like Gregory Selden shared similar experiences on social media. Selden filed a class-action lawsuit against the $25 billion company for failing to ensure "full and equal enjoyment" of company services.

Additionally, on June 5, writer and producer Shadi Petosky publicly shared a rejection she'd received from an Airbnb host in the past after disclosing that she is a transgender woman. The host was not removed from Airbnb until nearly a year later.

In response, Airbnb conducted a top-down review detailed in a 32 page-report released with the announcement. The effort was led by Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington, DC, legislative office, and included former Attorney General Eric Holder as a consultant.

“We will not only make this right,” Chesky said, “we will work to set an example that other companies can follow.”

While Airbnb lagged, black customers created their own companies

As Murphy noted in Airbnb’s report, new technology can’t eliminate the old-fashioned problem of discrimination: “We would like to think that decades after these forms of overt biases were in place and sanctioned by law, in 2016 a company like Airbnb would not have to deal with these problems. Unfortunately, that is not the case.”

But interactions in the sharing economy are still guided by implicit biases that existed long before Airbnb ever did.

A 2016 Harvard Business School working paper found Airbnb hosts were 16 percent more likely to deny guests with stereotypically African-American-sounding names than those with stereotypically white-sounding names, even when the profiles were identical.

As a result, companies like Airbnb have to be proactive in curbing biases. And if they don’t, it won’t just alienate their users. It could very well hurt their business.

The Harvard paper also noted that hosts who reject African-American guests find replacements for the property only 35 percent of the time. And unwilling to wait for Airbnb’s admittedly slow response, black users have created their own independent rental sites like Innclusive and Noirbnb to satisfy their needs.

"We decided racism and discrimination were still happening so it was pretty much up to us to solve the issue," Noirbnb co-founder Stefan Grant told USA Today.

Airbnb’s new policies indicate a company that is willing to take responsibility for its downfall. But that may be the least it can do if it doesn’t want its users to become its competition.

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