Saturday, April 20, 2024

Airbnb CEO Chesky vows site overhaul with racism in mind

SAN FRANCISCO — Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky opened the company's Open Air technical conference Wednesday by addressing recent racist incidents that have taken place on the $25-billion company's home sharing site.

Beyond expressing outrage at the incidents that have impacted African-Americans and transgender guests, Chesky said the company plans to pursue technological innovations to guard against future discriminatory events.

Chesky did not get specific about what those tech solutions could be, but his presence at the event — which was not listed in the program — speaks to both the urgency and seriousness of the issue for the company. Peer-to-peer start-ups such as Uber and Airbnb rely to an unprecedented degree on individuals behaving in respectable ways. Recent events indicate engineering safeguards against bad behavior may be critical to the continued growth of these businesses.

"There's been a lot of news about prejudice and bias on our platform, and this is a huge issue for us," said Chesky in a brief statement before handing the microphone to vice president of engineering Mike Curtis.

"We have zero tolerance for it and we will take swift action," said Chesky. "In the next months, we will be revisiting the design of our site from end to end to see how we can create a more inclusive platform. We're open to ideas. It's a really, really hard problem and we need help solving it. We want to move this forward. I myself have engaged with people who have been victims of discrimination on the platform. We take this seriously."

Racism represents a new hurdle for the start-up, which to date has been in the news due to its battles with cities such as New York and San Francisco over short-term rental rules. On Tuesday, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to require short-term rental websites like Airbnb to only post rental listings by residents who have registered with the city. If the city finds the residents haven't registered, Airbnb and rivals face fines up to $1,000 a day, per listing.

San Francisco has a chronic housing shortage and the law is aimed at ensuring that the city's housing stock isn't depleted by landlords who are pulling their residential listings in order to make more money through short-term rentals.

As significant as such zoning issues are for Airbnb, racist hosts could well put a bigger dent in its "Belong Anywhere" slogan. It remains to be seen just how tech innovations can help solve for racist incidents, but Open Air's sessions proposed various ways into the issue with topics such as "Scaling the Human Touch with Machine Learning," "Inequality Across Online and Offline Contexts in the 21st Century" and "Can We Use AI to Achieve Gender Neutrality?"

Rapid advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence suggest that there could be ways to better track racist activity on the site.

On Airbnb, users identify themselves with their real name and a photograph — information some hosts use to avoid renting to African Americans.

A Harvard Business School study found widespread discrimination by Airbnb hosts against guests whose names sounded distinctly black. Black Airbnb users have shared their stories of discrimination under the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, and entrepreneurs have started two temporary lodging services in response to the issue called Noirbnb and Noirebnb. "Noir" is black in French.

An African-American man is suing Airbnb for racial discrimination, alleging it did nothing when he was rejected by a host because of his race. And Airbnb banned a host in North Carolina last week after he used racist language to reject a 28-year-old Nigerian woman trying to reserve his home because she was black.

Earlier this week, Shadi Petosky, a Hollywood producer who identifies as transgender, told USA TODAY that she complained to Airbnb last summer when a Minneapolis "super host" declined her booking because she felt uncomfortable. "They (Airbnb) let it slide," said Petosky.

On Monday, Airbnb said a new program is in the works to recruit more underrepresented minorities in computer science and data science. It also tapped civil rights advocate Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington D.C. Legislative Office, to help lead a "comprehensive" review of how hosts who rent their homes on Airbnb pick guests.

Curtis noted that "everyday we have the challenge of unconscious bias and other sad realities of the human experience. But we're committed to halting this with every tool at our disposal. Our goal is to create a world where everyone can belong everywhere. We take this seriously and we're taking action. But no one company, and no company at all probably, can solve this problem alone. So we're hoping today we can learn from each other."

As for inclusion within its own walls, Airbnb says it will be conducting a company-wide review of its community that will conclude in September with an eye toward making Airbnb more inclusive. Like most tech companies, Airbnb is staffed mostly by white and Asian males.

"We don't have all the answers, but it's a top priority for us," said David King, Twitter's new director of diversity and belonging. "We're going to train on unconscious bias and intercultural communication with our host community. And we'll examine machine learning models that we can implement to affect change on our platform. We believe smart rules and smart tools can make a difference."

While diversity issues took center stage at the gathering, Airbnb also announced three product additions to its site.

Collaborative Wish Lists allows groups planning a trip to collaborate during the booking process in order to select an option that the group agrees on.

For the 11% of people booking through Airbnb for Business who are booking for someone else, Business Travel Booking allows travel managers and executive assistance greater ease in booking travel for co-workers.

And Multi-Party Reviews is aimed at helping guests establish a reputation with Airbnb hosts, and allows hosts to comment on individual members of a visiting party as opposed to just the person who made the booking.

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Author: Red

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