“Facebook Lets Advertisers Exclude Users by Race.” “Study Finds Some Uber and Lyft Drivers Racially Discriminate.” These headlines are disheartening, to say the least. With technological advancements come so many great things that make our lives more convenient, efficient, and fun. And yet, our deep seeded societal biases may threaten to dismantle the positive things that these services have brought to us.
Last week ProPublica released an article about Facebook’s advertising options, and how the site allows advertisers to exclude specific racial groups, through an option called “Ethnic Affinities,” from viewing certain ads. While this may seem simply like a problematic method of targeting consumer segments, it’s actually prohibited by federal law. Both the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act protect citizens from being discriminated against based on race, religion, gender, and a slew of other personal factors in advertisements.
Facebook responded by saying that it prohibits advertisers from “using the targeting options for discrimination, harassment, disparagement or predatory advertising practices.” However, the ad ProPublica test-ran that excluded persons of color was approved by Facebook a mere 15 minutes after it was submitted.
User biases exist among other tech services as well. A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that African-American riders faced racial discrimination by Uber and Lyft drivers. They “experienced statistically significant longer delay waiting for a trip request” through the two services, leading the organization to determine that at least some drivers discriminate on the basis of race. Furthermore, in Boston, riders with stereotypically African-American sounding names were twice as likely to have Uber rides canceled than people with white sounding names.
In a reaction to the study on racism from ride-sharing services, Lyft released a statement, saying that “Because of Lyft, people living in underserved areas—which taxis have historically neglected—are now able to access convenient, affordable rides. And we provide this service while maintaining an inclusive and welcoming community, and do not tolerate any form of discrimination.” While this may be true, and while Lyft itself is not conducting discriminatory business, racism can clearly still manifest itself through its platform.
Airbnb has also dealt with problems of discrimination, which is to be expected, since its service draws many similarities to those provided by Uber or Lyft. Rental hosts can reject potential guests after viewing their profiles, and have been doing so on the basis of race, gender, age, and other identifying factors, according to a Harvard study on the matter.
The company reacted to this finding and the accompanying criticism with several changes to its policies and rental processes. Starting tomorrow, Nov. 1, hosts must agree to a community commitment, which includes a nondiscriminatory policy, in order to continue renting to lodgers. The company is also reducing its use of profile pictures and has been expediting the use of instant bookings, allowing users to reserve instantly without host approval.
These actions may help reduce some discriminatory practices, but others question how effective they really will be. There are also more serious implications involved. For example, if minorities prefer using instant booking in a disproportionate number, then that may unintentionally create a two-tiered system within Airbnb reservations.
It’s a problem that services like Airbnb and Uber, while themselves not promoting or practicing discrimination, can provide a space in which users can project their own prejudices. It wasn’t supposed to be like this – the founders of these sharing economy companies probably didn’t even envision the complications that could arise from their ideas. In fact, at the very beginning, some actually hoped that Uber and Lyft would reduce denials of service based on race, an issue that had always occurred with taxi drivers.
Facebook, Uber, Airbnb and other companies should aim to take strides, if they have not already, in preventing discriminatory practices within the usage of their sites and apps. They’ve recognized the problem, and so has much of the public – which is why now is the best time to be proactive about the elephant in the room. And yet, even the most comprehensive service policies won’t solve the underlying societal issues of racism and discrimination that prevent users of color from easily renting an apartment for the weekend.
Racial discrimination has always been one of the uglier components of America, one that extends deep into its history and is unfortunately still thriving in many forms today. It’s sad to see that even as technology advances at a pace unimaginable to us just a decade ago, our attitudes on race have in many ways stagnated. We’ll only be able to fully utilize digital advancements and take advantage of great services like Uber and Airbnb if we move past our discriminatory habits. These companies can do as much as they want to prevent such occurrences from happening. But it’s up to us, the users, to enact the real change.