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Social Implications of Services like Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft
Services like Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft have recently been criticized for allowing discriminatory practices. Users of the services who are black and/or have “black sounding” names have reported cancellations and longer wait times when using them. Last month, an Airbnb host in North Carolina made hateful, racist posts in canceling a booking by a black guest. This has sparked an online campaign, #AirbnbWhileBlack, where black Airbnb users have shared their experiences while using Airbnb and their subsequent dissatisfaction with the service. Former Airbnb users Ronnia Cherry and Stefan Grant created Noirbnb, a black-owned version of Airbnb, rather than waiting for Airbnb to personally address discrimination experienced by black users. Race isn’t the only factor affecting users of the service. According to the New York Times, “[Shadi Petosky] recently tweeted that a host had turned her down because she is transgender. Ms. Petosky wrote that she complained of the incident to Airbnb when it occurred in 2015, to no avail, and that she decided to post about it, given the North Carolina incident and the #AirbnbWhileBlack complaints.”
Laws that prohibit housing discrimination could come into play here. According to the New York Times, “Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits racial discrimination in public accommodations like hotels and restaurants. The law contains an exemption, however, for small owner-occupied rooming houses, a category that may seem to include most Airbnb hosts. But what if we view Airbnb as one giant hotel? Given that Airbnb’s business competes directly with services provided by hotels, it seems appropriate to treat its rentals as public accommodations under the law.” If a court were to find that Airbnb rentals should be classified as public accommodations, it would set a precedent that the company would have to address. However, no such ruling has been made yet.
Airbnb has taken steps to address users’ complaints about discriminatory practices displayed by some hosts. “The issue of racial discrimination in renting is something that Airbnb has to acknowledge and address systemically, not just on a case-by-case basis,” says Deborah N. Archer, a law professor at New York Law School. “People should also file complaints with federal, state, and local fair housing agencies.”
Discriminatory practices like those in the case of Airbnb can be seen with ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft. “Transportation sharing networks such as UberX and Lyft bring a number of benefits to the economy,” researchers said. In extreme cases, though, “drivers are more than four times as likely to cancel on an African-American male passenger than on a white male passenger.”
There are differences between Uber and Lyft when it comes to drivers displaying discriminatory behavior. According to Slate, “Uber drivers don’t see information about riders before accepting a ride, but once they do get that information, they can cancel a booking before they’ve picked up the rider; Lyft drivers see names and photos from the start. Black Uber customers, then, are more likely to see cancellations. Black Lyft riders see longer acceptance times for rides.” It’s worth noting that “Lyft’s discrimination-friendly platform may produce better outcomes for black riders, because Uber’s accept-then-cancel procedure can prolong wait times.”
It is clear that all three services--Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber--have a long way to go when it comes to accommodating their minority users who are left vulnerable to the prejudices of hosts and drivers when trying to find a ride or a place to stay. These disparities between the experiences of minorities compared with the experiences of nonminorities when using the services show an uglier side of society in general. Are these services to blame for advancing society’s failings? I would argue that the answer to that is no. However, it is their responsibility to come up with a solution to remedy discrimination or risk giving that edge to an up-and-coming competitor such as Noirbnb. It will remain up to the courts to decide whether this is an issue where government needs to intervene or whether this is an issue for the free market to decide.