Harvard professor temporarily banned for having several test accounts while investigating how white and black users are treated differently on the site
Airbnb blocked a Harvard professor from using its service after he uncovered evidence of racial discrimination, prompting accusations that the startup’s policies stifle critical research.
After the Guardian contacted Airbnb about the suspension of Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, a spokesman said it had reinstated his account.
Emails show that Edelman, who is one of the most prominent researchers cited in the debate about racism on Airbnb, was suspended because he had created test accounts to study how black guests face higher rates of rejection than white users.
“This is not research the company favors,” Edelman said, adding that he was concerned about the “overarching threat they hold over everyone who wants to do this kind of research”.
This month, Edelman discovered that the $30bn technology company suspended him for violating a policy against users having multiple accounts. His wife was also suspended, presumably because they use the same IP address – though she played no role in his research.
Edelman said the company ignored his pleas to the site’s customer service department. The professor said his account was also suspended over the summer and only reinstated after a journalist asked Airbnb about it.
Academics and regular users were only able to expose discrimination on the site by creating fake accounts to test how hosts responded to users of different races.
Earlier this year, black Airbnb users started sharing discrimination stories on social media with the viral hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. Some of them showed how a host rejected their request but then immediately approved them when they created fake accounts with white profile photos.
Edelman’s research demonstrated that the problem wasn’t isolated. In 2015, he created 20 test accounts that were identical except half used “distinctively African American names” while half had white names. The study, which involved thousands of listings across five US cities, found that black users were 16% less likely to be accepted than identical guests with white names.
The professor said that the suspension policy was particularly unfair if it were used against black guests who created fake white accounts to test whether a specific host rejected them due to their race.
“Not only are they facing discrimination trying to use Airbnb, but then when they try to prove it, they are banned.”
In a statement, an Airbnb spokesman said the suspension was a mistake: “Multiple accounts are often an indicator of suspicious activity or fraud, so our system automatically suspends these accounts when they are detected. We’ve since reinstated the account and we’re eager to work with researchers who share our commitment to building a community that’s fair for everyone.”
Housing rights organizations and government agencies have long used “testers” to uncover racial biases of landlords – sending black and white renters to property owners who may be refusing to rent to people of color.
President-elect Donald Trump faced a federal lawsuit in the 1970s after New York City testers found that black renters were told there were no vacancies in Trump buildings while white people were offered units.
Given the long history of housing discrimination and testers, Airbnb should embrace academics and research projects, Edelman said.
Critics have also pointed out that Airbnb and other technology companies often refuse to publicly share data with independent researchers, allowing the corporations to avoid the kind of scrutiny that more traditionally regulated industries face.
The suspensions also raise questions about Airbnb’s priorities. Although the site has banned the professor for doing an innocuous study involving fake accounts, studies have shown how Airbnb has consistently failed to restrict users who violate local housing laws and run illegal hotels that aren’t properly taxed or regulated.
“They’re super diligent about banning me for my terrible test accounts. Meanwhile, the guy running an illegal hotel without the right smoke detector or fire escape, they are looking the other way,” said Edelman. “That’s pretty ironic.”
Opponents have argued that the proliferation of illegal Airbnb hosts has exacerbated gentrification and displacement by turning affordable housing into hotels, but that the company has resisted tougher regulations to protect the profits it gains from these users.
In September, in response to the #AirbnbWhileBlack backlash, the startup announced it had adopted new nondiscrimination policies and systems to address user complaints. CEO Brian Chesky had previously called discrimination “the greatest challenge we face as a company” and hired former US attorney general Eric Holder to work on the problem.
Edelman and other professors say the new policies don’t go far enough. They have argued that if the corporation changed its system so that hosts would not see a potential guest’s name or profile picture prior to the booking, Airbnb would operate like traditional hotels and hosts would not be able to discriminate.
This article was originally posted on The Guardian.