Airbnb Resisted Safety Changes As Reports Mounted, Will Now Spend $150 Million More On The Problem: Report

By Janet Burns for Forbes

The US’ largest home-sharing platform is fielding criticism and promising upgrades to its safety practices ahead of a 2020 IPO.

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal’s Kirsten Grind and Shane Shifflett reported that Airbnb recently revealed its latest safety-improvement plans amid questions about its practices and dangerous incidents involving the platform, along with lawmakers’ rising scrutiny toward Big Tech.

Airbnb, which has been preparing to go public next year, announced earlier this month that it would be implementing multiple new sets of rules and safety tools ahead of an “[expected] 4.5 million guest stays on New Year’s Eve” around the world.

According to Grind and Shifflett, “In early December, after The Wall Street Journal provided Airbnb with written questions about safety issues, the company announced details and additional measures, including a commitment to spend $150 million on safety initiatives and the creation of a dedicated line where city officials could contact the company when issues arise.”

Among other things, the WSJ highlighted several instances out of hundreds in police records when Airbnb renters or hosts have faced disturbing consequences that could potentially have been prevented, or at least predicted; in one case, a guest crawled into bed with the hosts’ seven-year-old daughter, where he was found “naked and aroused;” guests at other locations were repeatedly robbed, or stole things themselves.

And while Airbnb employees have suggested more than once that collecting guests’ official IDs or Social Security numbers would strengthen their security systems, company execs including CEO Brian Chesky have still declined, according to WSJ. The site noted that Airbnb does background-check its guests and hosts, and “removes only members with serious criminal conviction histories, such as felony burglary.”

Like other large digital platforms, Airbnb has also struggled to find the right balance of tools for protecting users’ safety, privacy, and other rights.

“Airbnb’s [vice president of trust Margaret Richardson] said running background checks is seen by some as discriminatory against certain groups, including formerly incarcerated people,” the WSJ noted. “Some advocates for criminal justice reform, she said, have advised the company ‘that doing background checks is not appropriate, and that people are unnecessarily excluded from travel’ because of old criminal records.”

“Our aspiration is to keep getting better and better on safety and doing everything that we can to address the issues that have been raised,” Richardson told the site.

Regarding the WSJ’s reporting, Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty commented by email, “Airbnb does not solely rely on government identifications because of the fact that such identifications are not globally accessible and strongly believes that a verified identification system is a far better way to assure the accurate identify of users.

“The unsubstantiated implication that the decision by the company, including its CEO, was related to reasons other than the best interests of users is simply wrong,” Nulty wrote.

In the past several years, Airbnb has faced increasing criticism over its safety practices (among other things) from its users, local and federal regulators, and housing competitors alike. Subjects of concern have ranged from theft and destruction of property to remote surveillance, sexual assault, and murder.

Last year, a study also found that many Airbnb properties “do not contain safety equipment including smoke detectors, carbon monoxide (CO) detectors, fire extinguishers and first aid kits, potentially putting guests at risk in the event of an emergency,” as TIME reported.

Scrutiny toward the company has only escalated since a shooting at a Halloween party in a California Airbnb property left five people dead this fall.

According to the WSJ, “The large home in Orinda where the catastrophic Halloween house party took place had been the subject of multiple complaints to city officials and police in the prior year about parties and noise, according to city records and interviews with officials.”

Days later, the company said it would launch a 24/7, rapid response “Neighbor Hotline” and expand its screening of “high-risk” reservations, among other steps.

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