Unlike with other online marketplaces, like eBay or Amazon, Airbnb’s design incorporates large profile pictures of its sellers. That design feature led Harvard Business School Professors Benjamin Edelman and Michael Luca to conduct a study called “Digital Discrimination: The Case of Airbnb.com,” wherein they evaluated how the race, gender, age and appearance of a landlord affected the prices of comparable listings in New York City.
The pair discovered that fewer customers seem to be interested in renting from black hosts, forcing black hosts to rent out their properties for less money than their non-black counterparts would charge for a totally comparable listing.
“We find that non-black hosts are able to charge approximately 12% more than black hosts, holding location, rental characteristics, and quality constant,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “Moreover, black hosts receive a larger price penalty for having a poor location score relative to non-black hosts. These differences highlight the risk of discrimination in online marketplaces, suggesting an important unintended consequence of a seemingly-routine mechanism for building trust.”
Airbnb, unsurprisingly, is not particularly thrilled with the study, and told Re/code in an email statement, “We are committed to making Airbnb the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent community in the world and our Terms of Service prohibit content that discriminates. The data in this report is nearly two years old and is from only one of the more than 35,000 cities where Airbnb hosts welcome guests into their homes. Additionally, the authors made a number of subjective or inaccurate determinations when compiling their findings.”
We don’t doubt that racial discrimination exists between renters and landlords on Airbnb. But to be fair to Airbnb, it’s not as if they created that racism—it’s their stupid bigoted customers. It is, however, Airbnb’s responsibility to step up and do something to help fight the racial discrimination, now that they know it exists.
Mr. Edelman and Mr. Luca suggested that Airbnb simply make its landlords’ profile photos less visible, or take them away entirely.
They conclude, “It is not immediately obvious what beneficial information these photos provide, while they risk facilitating discrimination by guests.”