Airbnb Hosts Discriminate Against African-American Guests

 
 
Experimental research by Ben Edelman, Michael Luca, and Daniel Svirsky revealed widespread discrimination against African-American guests on Airbnb. Now the researchers have created an online tool to mitigate it.
 
 
by Carmen Nobel

Due to racial discrimination, white vacationers have an easier time booking an Airbnb rental property than African-Americans do, according to a new study from faculty at Harvard Business School.

The problem seems to lie in all the personal information—names and profile pictures—that are inherent in many online marketplaces of the so-called sharing economy. “To facilitate trust, many online platforms like Airbnb encourage sellers to provide personal profiles and even to post pictures of themselves” says HBS Associate Professor Ben Edelman, who conducted the research with HBS Assistant Professor Michael Luca and Daniel Svirsky, a doctoral student at HBS. “However, these features may also facilitate discrimination based on sellers' race, gender, age, or other characteristics.”

To test for racial discrimination among Airbnb hosts, the researchers created 20 faux Airbnb guest accounts, identical in all respects except for guest names. The names included ten meant to sound distinctively African-American (“LaTonya Robinson” and “Rasheed Jackson,” for example) and ten meant to sound white (e.g. “Laurie Ryan” and “Brent Baker”). These monikers, half male and half female, were chosen based on the frequency of names from birth certificates of babies born in Massachusetts in the mid-1970s.

Using these twenty guest accounts, the researchers sent some 6,400 to Airbnb hosts over a period of three weeks in July, 2015. Then they waited for responses from the hosts. They found that requests from guests with distinctively African-American-sounding names were decidedly less likely to be accepted than identical guests with white-sounding names. In their sample, hosts accepted inquiries from the white-sounding names 50 percent of the time. In contrast, guests with African-American-sounding names were accepted roughly 42 percent of the time.

This study followed a 2014 study in which Edelman and Luca found that black hosts charged approximately 12 percent less for rentals than nonblack hosts—even when the properties were equivalent in terms of location and quality.

So what can be done to prevent this apparent discrimination? In their paper “Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy,” the researchers note that the most obvious way to squelch racism on Airbnb is to squelch the ability to identify the race of guests or hosts online. To that end, they’ve teamed up with two computer scientists to create a tool that does just that.

The plugin modifies Chrome to hide the name and face of guests requesting to stay with Airbnb hosts.

“Debias Yourself” is a downloadable browser plugin that lets an Airbnb host view a guest’s inquiry message, while hiding the guest’s profile picture and name. “This way, the host can review and accept guest requests on a nondiscriminatory basis, considering a guest’s request on the merits (such as dates, number of people, and purpose of the visit) without information that conveys race, gender, or age (such as name and photograph). In future versions, we will add support for other online marketplaces,” the researchers write on the site debiasyourself.org.

The tool also allows guests to peruse potential rental properties without seeing profile pictures of the hosts.

Is it legal for the researchers to tamper with Airbnb like this? “We’re just changing the way your browser shows the Airbnb site—telling your browser not to show certain text and images,” they write. “That isn’t quite what Airbnb intended, but it’s your computer, and it’s your right to configure it as you see fit.”

Debias Yourself is available for download on Google’s Chrome Web Store. Currently it is available only for Chrome browsers, but there will be support for other browsers in the future, according to the researchers.

There are also plans afoot to “debias” other online marketplaces, Edelman says.

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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