Airbnb apologizes for racism complaints, outlines changes

FILE - In this April 19, 2016 file photo, Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky speaks during an announcement in San Francisco. Airbnb on Thursday, Sept. 8 apologized for its slow response to accusations of racism and outlined new policies to combat the problem, including reducing the prominence of photos in the booking process. "We have been slow to address these problems, and for this I am sorry," said Chesky in a message published on the vacation rental website's blog. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

NEW YORK — Airbnb on Thursday apologized for its slow response to accusations of racism and outlined new policies to combat the problem, including reducing the prominence of photos in the booking process.

The company also plans to automatically block future reservations for dates where a host has told someone that a property was unavailable.

Numerous anecdotes on social media with the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack recounted incidents in which African-American guests were told listings were unavailable for the dates they wanted, only to see those same listings re-advertised later for the same dates.

"We have been slow to address these problems, and for this I am sorry," said Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky in a message published on the vacation rental website's blog.

The new calendar-blocking policy, being implemented in the first half of 2017, is designed to stop hosts from discriminating against guests by falsely claiming that a property is booked, then re-renting to others.

Airbnb did not bow to critics' requests that they remove profile photos entirely so that hosts can't reject guests based on appearance. The company has said that photos are an important security features so hosts can recognize guests when they check in.

But the report published on the company's website Thursday, titled "Airbnb's Work To Fight Discrimination and Build Inclusion," said new policies will "experiment with reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process."

Among other things, new policies will expand Airbnb's "Instant Book" program, which allows hosts to offer homes without approval of specific guests, as long as they meet basic qualifications, with a goal of 1 million listings by Jan. 1.

Users had also said their complaints of discrimination were ignored when they reported them to Airbnb. The report says the company has developed "new tools" to "reliably route concerns" to specialists.

In addition to expanding Instant Book and blocking calendars from accepting reservations for a given time period once hosts state their property is unavailable, Airbnb will:

—Require all users to agree, beginning Nov. 1, to a "stronger, more detailed nondiscrimination policy." Chesky said the new "Airbnb Community Commitment" wouldn't just be checking a box on a long legal document, but would involve agreeing to treat others without bias.

—Find comparable accommodations, starting Oct. 1, for any guest who reports discrimination in booking a listing, having a booking canceled or in interacting with a host. The policy will apply retroactively to guests who reported discrimination in the past, and all of those guests will be given help booking their next trip.

—Provide anti-bias training by Jan. 31 to all Airbnb employees.

—Improve technology to "root out bias" with a team of dedicated engineers.

The company brought in former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Laura Murphy, former head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., to review complaints and develop new policies.

Accusations that Airbnb has been ignoring complaints of racism have led several black entrepreneurs to create two new vacation rental websites where they say racism will not be tolerated. The new sites include Innclusive.com and Noirbnb.com.

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