Airbnb is reportedly banning users who, despite having a clear background, were associated with people the company deems a safety risk. Although the short-term rental company faces an impossible balancing act of making owners feel secure without discriminating unfairly against renters, its appeals process — a critical step in catching overreaches — sounds lackluster and confusing while erring on the side of perceived homeowner security.
Airbnb confirmed to Motherboard that it sometimes refuses to rent to users associated with banned individuals “likely to travel” with them. For example, in January, Airbnb informed a user named Amanda that she was prohibited from the platform due to being “closely associated with a person who isn’t allowed to use Airbnb.” Amanda used the credit card of her boyfriend — who has a criminal record — to book the rental. (Amanda doesn’t have a criminal record.) She told Motherboard that her partner’s flagged history was from “a white collar charge” while adding that the two don’t share an address or bank account.
Two days after appealing the ban, Airbnb informed her it was upholding it “after careful consideration” to help “safeguard our community.” Then, it slammed the door shut on the case, adding that it wouldn’t “offer additional support on this case at this time.” Although the company is less than transparent about how long it’s enacted this process or how often it uses it, its procedures require one of two things to appeal successfully: the banned acquaintance causing their prohibition successfully appeals their ban, or the person attempting to rent proves they aren’t “closely associated” with the problematic person.
Either way, the company’s subliminal message has concerning undertones: Associate with someone with a checkered past — regardless of who they are today — and neither of you can use our platform.
Airbnb is a private business, and Amanda could try booking through a competitor — or simply get a hotel room. Further, we don’t know the precise details about why her boyfriend was banned in the first place. But the company’s approach highlights a more significant issue we may see again as Big Tech’s ability to profile users grows more advanced. (The company already uses “anti-party tech,” and competitor Vrbo used what’s essentially pre-crime for house parties during the Super Bowl.)
So where do you draw the line? Airbnb’s answer appears to be a cynical calculation that risking negative press about banning acquaintances — perhaps unfairly — is preferable to anything that could make homeowners feel less secure about using the service.
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