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Harvard professor to  Airbnb: Eliminate profile photos to curb racism

Earlier this month, Airbnb released a 32-page report on the actions it is taking to fight discrimination on its platform. They included a new anti-discrimination policy; an emphasis on its “instant book” feature, which allows guests to automatically book housing for available dates; and experiments with reducing the prominence of guest photos and names in the booking process.

The company has faced accusations that it enables racism since a Harvard Business School study last year found that people with traditionally African-American names had a more difficult time securing an Airbnb rental than those with “white” names.

One of the authors of that study, Benjamin Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, published a critique today of Airbnb’s report. He was not impressed. “While Airbnb’s report is a step in the right direction, it does little to address the crucial subject of how to actually fix the problem of discrimination,” he wrote in a response to the changes.

Edelman argues that the most obvious and effective change Airbnb could make in its platform to address discrimination would be to remove names and photos from the booking process altogether, which would remove the opportunity for hosts to discriminate based on names and appearances.

Airbnb argues that “profile photos are an important feature that help build relationships and allow hosts and guests to get to know one another before a booking begins.” Edelman notes that Airbnb blocks hosts from sharing other information before booking that might help them get to know each other, such as email addresses and addresses, because it’s in the company’s interests to prevent them from making arrangements off the website (Airbnb charges a fee on each booking).

“Based on Airbnb’s promise of a ‘comprehensive review,’ I hoped for more,” he says.SK