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Airbnb's new experiment to combat rental bias uses initials instead of names

A 2016 Harvard Business School study<a href="http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/racial-discrimination-in-the-sharing-economy-evidence-from-a-field-experiment">, </a>specifically looking at behavioral patterns on Airbnb, found that guests with "distinctly African-American names  are roughly 16% less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively White names."
Lionel Bonaventure
/
AFP via Getty Images
A 2016 Harvard Business School study<a href="http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/racial-discrimination-in-the-sharing-economy-evidence-from-a-field-experiment">, </a>specifically looking at behavioral patterns on Airbnb, found that guests with "distinctly African-American names are roughly 16% less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively White names."

In an ideal world, sites such as Airbnb would be able to operate without bias or prejudice. They'd provide the same services for all registered users seeking to book a rental, without regard for race. But that appears not to be the case and studies have shown that some hosts do discriminate based on profile photos and African American-sounding names.

Now the property rental company is trying an experiment to help solve the problem, changing the way Oregon-based guest profile names appear during the booking process. For the next two years, hosts will see a prospective guest's initials only — not their first name — until the reservation is completed.

The move comes nearly 2 1/2 years after Airbnb settled a lawsuit with three African American women who alleged that the site allowed hosts to discriminate against Black users by displaying their full names and photographs, in violation of Oregon's public accommodation laws.

"This update is consistent with the voluntary settlement agreement we reached in 2019 with individuals in Oregon who raised concerns regarding the way guests' names are displayed when they seek to book a listing," the company said in a statement.

"As part of our ongoing work, we will take any learnings from this process and use them to inform future efforts to fight bias," it continues, noting that the new system will be fully implemented in the state by Jan. 31.

The company changed its photo policy in 2018, withholding the images until after a host accepts a booking. At the same time, it gave hosts the option of choosing whether to require guest photos.

Social scientists have amassed a trove of studies showing patterns of discrimination against people with Black-sounding names. A 2016 Harvard Business School field study, specifically looking at behavioral patterns on Airbnb, found that guests with "distinctly African-American names are roughly 16% less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively White names."

The study prompted Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky to issue an apology to users, saying, "Bias and discrimination have no place on Airbnb, and we have zero tolerance for them." Airbnb also began requiring users to accept a nondiscrimination pledge and launched the Instant Book feature, which allows hosts to offer their homes to be booked immediately without prior approval of a specific guest.

Looking ahead, the company pledged to "continue working with our Hosts and guests, and with civil rights leaders to make our community more inclusive."

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