App-based services are everywhere. You can call a car, talk to your neighbors, find housing, and much more through a number of platforms that are accessible at the touch of a button. But unfortunately, there’s a negative side to the “sharing economy” and to letting individuals become providers of everyday services — racial bias. Bias on services such as Airbnb and Nextdoor is starting to get some big attention, leading the companies to make statements and try to address the issue.
App-based service companies aren’t the first to see racial bias. Black taxi cab drivers get lower tips than white taxi drivers on average, and white people are more likely to get job call-backs than others. So the issues with services like Airbnb is not that they are unique in the racial bias that shows up within their systems, but rather that the tools make it too easy for people to discriminate in the first place. Because of the fact that users provide their name and a photograph on Airbnb, owners and renters listing their property can easily discard requests from people with black-sounding names, for instance, or those who appear dark-skinned.
To address concerns about bias on its system, Airbnb has hired a former head of the American Civil Liberties Union to do a comprehensive review of the problem over the next several months. Some feel, however, that the company needs to do more to address the bias, such as minimizing how frequently and where user names and pictures get displayed to hosts.
A different company — Nextdoor has also come under scrutiny lately for the instances of racial bias that happen on its neighborhood forums. The company is working on the issue by programming their system to catch “racially charged words” and do a better job of flagging inappropriate comments at the outset. Nextdoor has become a hot issue in the City of Oakland in particular, where some have used the platform to encourage others to call the police on black residents for no reason, or for minor issues.
Racial bias is never an easy conversation topic, and there are ways to go about it poorly. Take Uber’s public reasoning around its no-tipping policy for instance. The company claims that it does not allow tips because it’s worried about the racial bias inherent in tipping. But one has to wonder if that’s not simply an easy excuse for keeping customers happy through charging them less overall. At the end of the day, it remains to be seen which companies will really step up to the plate in addressing bias, and which ones will sit back and see what happens.
Header Image: Vivien Killilea / Stringer