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Airbnb and Social Control in the Sharing Economy

Airbnb and Social Control in the Sharing Economy

New York Times - By QUENTIN HARDY

Technology has all kinds of ways to make life easier — particularly for the tech companies themselves. As Katie Benner writes, Airbnb is currently under scrutiny over the way some of its members choose who they will rent to. One study shows it’s harder for people with names that seem African-American to book stays. Yet if those people are wronged on Airbnb, there’s little they can do to seek legal redress.

When people sign up for the service, they waive the right to sue Airbnb, or join any arbitration or class-action lawsuit against the company. A few months back, Airbnb highlighted those terms, and older users were compelled to show that they were aware of the rights they were losing by listing with Airbnb.

This is not the only time Airbnb has been selective with information. Last year, San Francisco held a referendum on whether, among other things, short-term rentals could be restricted to 75 nights a year. Airbnb, which was viewed as the primary target of the vote, spent heavily to defeat the measure, and it was.

What Airbnb did not do was disclose how many clients it had who did seem to be renting out large blocks of real estate for long periods of time. That would have been simple for such a data-driven outfit, but that detail occupied little of the debate.

The class-action waiver is particularly important where discrimination is concerned. Class-actions are a strong tool in discrimination cases, as the significance of the number of participants reinforces the idea that a systemic ill is being promulgated. It is the kind of thing that has helped ease discrimination by hotels and real estate brokers — Airbnb’s old-economy counterparts.

For its part, Airbnb says it is committed to ending discrimination, noting that it has kicked off hosts who discriminated against an African-American and a transgendered woman.

What it hasn’t done, yet, is show a policy that is superior to existing legal remedies, though an outside adviser to Airbnb tells Ms. Benner that it doesn’t need the kind of pressures older companies needed to do the right thing. Apparently the new breed of companies are simply better, and don’t do that kind of thing.

Maybe. But Airbnb is hardly alone among tech companies in curbing the rights of the public on which it relies.

Tesla Motors, it was reported this month, has been agreeing to repair faulty suspensions in some of its cars, but only after customers agreed to sign nondisclosure agreements. After this information became public, Tesla said it would modify the language of such stipulations to show that the goal “is to benefit customers.” Feel better?

Tesla is a company that has, famously, gotten rid of many of its patents so that information could be shared freely, thus encouraging optimal outcomes. Apparently some other realities of their operation are still worth keeping secret.

Employees at tech companies are frequently bound by nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements that may follow them for years after they leave these companies — so, frequently, are contractors and government officials who work with the tech companies. While some of that may be understandable, nondisclosures in tech have few parallels elsewhere in the private sector.

Tech is an industry supposedly built on the idea that transparency and information sharing make a better world for us all. Apparently not when the information involves things that might affect the company itself.

It’s enough to make you Google search the word “hypocrisy.”

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