CEO Brian Chesky says Airbnb stopped being a ‘hands-off’ platform earlier than other tech companies because customers got ‘physically hurt’

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Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. REUTERS/Mike Segar
  • Airbnb ditched “hands-off” moderation earlier than rivals, CEO Brian Chesky told Bloomberg Thursday.
  • The company addressed issues more quickly because customers got “physically hurt,” Chesky said.
  • Chesky also explained why Airbnb has responded more strongly to racism and the Capitol attacks.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky threw a bit of shade at other tech “platforms” on Thursday, telling Bloomberg’s Emily Chang his company learned quicker than its larger rivals about how to tackle bad behaviour.

“At Airbnb, we learned lessons earlier than big tech companies, because we had people getting their homes trashed, we had people getting physically hurt or worse,” Chesky said.

“We started realising that we had to take more responsibility for the activity on our platform, if for no other reason, to keep people safe. That’s a very good reason to do that, and so we’ve been doing this for a very long period of time,” he added.

The tech industry’s response to the violent attacks on the US Capitol on January 6 has reignited a heated debate over what responsibility companies should have to police users’ behaviour on their platforms.

After years of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media companies facing intense pressure to crack down harder, tech “infrastructure” companies — including Google, Apple, Amazon, PayPal, Slack, and others — took decisive action within days to shut down sites like Parler, ban individuals connected with the violence, and cut off funding to those who enabled them.

Airbnb, however, was ahead of the curve in being forced to recognise how the design of its platform could lead to real-world harm, Chesky said.

When he co-founded Airbnb in 2008, the mainstream view among Silicon Valley tech executives was that “platforms should be hands-off,” Chesky said, and that “the internet’s kind of like an immune system: build the community tools and they will moderate themselves.”

But that approach quickly spurred problems for companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft, whose platforms directly facilitate in-person interactions in ways that social media sites don’t. When a fatal shooting happened at an “Airbnb party” or an “Uber driver” sexually assaulted a passenger, those companies have had a harder time arguing they weren’t at least partly responsible.

As early as 2015, reports emerged that Black Airbnb guests experienced racial discrimination, and Airbnb eventually responded by partnering with the civil rights group Colour of Change to conduct an audit. While the report criticised Airbnb for continuing to fuel gentrification, it also praised the company for taking steps to make its reservations, reviews, and customer service processes less biased.

In 2017, when white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia — a precursor in many ways to the violence at the Capitol — Airbnb banned the accounts of individuals connected to the event.

Around that time, Airbnb was also facing a surge in scams, guests trashing hosts’ homes, and unauthorised parties that, at times, led to violence and fatalities.

In October 2019, following a shooting that left five dead in California, Chesky announced a series of steps to rebuild trust in Airbnb by better vetting guests, hosts, and their homes, provide emergency hotlines, ban party houses, and coordinate with local law enforcement, among other things.

Chesky said Thursday that those early lessons helped prepare Airbnb to take a clear stand in response to the Capitol riots.

“What we saw with the Capitol raid was something that was shocking, and we felt like there were just too many reservations and too many people to screen and discern what people’s intentions were,” he said.

So, Airbnb quickly decided to ban all reservations in Washington, DC, during President Joe Biden’s inauguration, permanently ban those directly involved in the riots, and became one of the first major companies to halt political contributions to the lawmakers who voted against certifying Biden’s win.

“We’re not always right” when it comes to moderation decisions, Chesky said. “But we want to be on offence.”