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Airbnb combats racial bias by using initials in place of first names

The program is set to be up and running by the end of January. It'll apply in Oregon, where the company settled a racial bias lawsuit over requiring first names.

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Andrew Blok Editor I
Andrew Blok has been an editor at CNET covering HVAC and home energy, with a focus on solar, since October 2021. As an environmental journalist, he navigates the changing energy landscape to help people make smart energy decisions. He's a graduate of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State and has written for several publications in the Great Lakes region, including Great Lakes Now and Environmental Health News, since 2019. You can find him in western Michigan watching birds.
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To fight possible racial bias in its booking process, short-term-rental company  Airbnb  will start hiding the first names of prospective guests from Oregon from their potential hosts. Would-be hosts will instead see interested renters' first initials until a booking is confirmed. The program is scheduled to be implemented by the end of January and run for at least two years.

At this point, the change applies only to Oregon residents, with no concrete plans to make it permanent or expand it. "Given that the impact of this change is unknown, the implementation will be limited," a company spokesperson said in an email Thursday.

The change stems from the 2019 settlement of a lawsuit brought by three African-American women who alleged that requiring prospective renters to share full names and photos of their faces allowed hosts to discriminate against them based on race.

This isn't the first action Airbnb has taken to prevent racial discrimination. The company has made changes to when and how profile pictures are shared and required hosts to sign an anti-discrimination commitment. In 2020, Airbnb, with the help of the racial justice organization Color of Change, launched the Lighthouse Project to measure and fight racial bias on its platform.

In 2016, a Harvard Business Review Journal study found that "guests with distinctively African-American names" were 16% less likely to be accepted on the platform than "identical guests with distinctively White names."

"This update is consistent with the voluntary settlement agreement we reached in 2019 with individuals in Oregon who raised concerns regarding the way guests' names are displayed when they seek to book a listing," the company said in a late December blog post announcing the move.