Airbnb Hires Eric Holder to Develop Anti-Discrimination Plan

  • Former U.S. attorney general will craft new corporate policy
  • Room-rental website says it’s hiring staff to monitor issues

Eric Holder.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has joined Airbnb Inc. to develop a strategy to address potential racism and other discrimination against people using the online home-rental service, following complaints by some customers.

Holder will serve as an adviser to the company working with John Relman, a civil rights attorney, to strengthen a corporate policy prohibiting discrimination by people using the website to rent their homes. Airbnb is adding staff to monitor for discrimination and respond, Chief Executive Officer Brian Chesky wrote Wednesday in a company blog post.

“This is the greatest challenge we face as a company,” Chesky wrote. “We will not simply ‘address the issue’ by doing the least required for liability and PR purposes. I want us to be smart and innovative and to create new tools to prevent discrimination and bias that can be shared across the industry.”

Discrimination concerns began to mount last winter after a Harvard Business School study found that hosts were less likely to rent to people with black-sounding names. Using fake profiles, researchers discovered the effect remained true regardless of a renter’s gender or user rating. The study proposed solutions such as concealing guest names, a recommendation at odds with Airbnb’s philosophy saying “robust” profiles help hosts determine a person’s reliability and authenticity. 

Airbnb was accused in a civil-rights lawsuit in May of ignoring a black man who complained that his request to book a stay through the site was rejected by a host because of his race. Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office in Washington, has been leading a companywide review, Chesky wrote.

In addition to underscoring Airbnb’s commitment to anti-discrimination goals, Holder’s hire signals a desire to bring in expertise from Washington. The company has faced pressure from government officials around the world. Last week, three U.S. senators asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company and other room-rental services over their effect on local housing markets, claims of discrimination and other issues.

Uber Technologies Inc., another highly valued San Francisco startup that faces regulatory pressure, set up a U.S. safety advisory board in November that included Margaret Richardson, the former chief of staff to Holder. After leaving the attorney general’s office last year, Holder returned to Covington & Burling LLP, a Washington law firm. He will advise Airbnb while remaining a partner with Covington & Burling, said David Schaefer, a spokesman for the law firm.

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