In February 2016, Ramona Flour, a sex worker, traveled to New York City to spend a weekend with her partner. Like so many visitors to New York, she spent most of her time sightseeing, and an Instagram from her trip shows her mugging with a dinosaur at the American Museum of Natural History. For the first time, she used Airbnb for lodging. A few weeks later, she tried to login to her account, only for Airbnb to inform her that she had been banned because her account “didn’t follow our Terms of Service and community standards,” according to screengrabs she provided to Rolling Stone. She says she followed up with customer service twice, but to no avail.
For months, Flour was baffled. She knew it was not uncommon for big tech platforms to discriminate against sex workers. But she hadn’t used her business name or email address in registering her account; she had used her legal name and her personal email. (Most sex workers do not use their legal names publicly, for safety reasons and due to the stigma associated with the profession.) More to the point, she hadn’t been traveling on business, and didn’t shoot any adult content at the host home. She had absolutely no idea how Airbnb would have ever figured out that she did sex work in the first place.
“I spent the last few years mulling it over in my mind. Trying to figure out how they knew. I thought maybe the owner of the place?,” she tells Rolling Stone. “But never thought data mining was the answer. It’s weird to think they are going so out of their way to remove accounts and block people in my industry from using their service.”
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A report from last week suggests Airbnb may be doing just this. The Evening Standard reported that Airbnb owns a patent for AI software that could screen users based on “ISPs, Public and Commercial Databases, Social Networks, Blogs” and “Other” personal data in the cloud. The software was patented by a background checking startup called Trooly, which was acquired by Airbnb in 2017. The software would use such information to assess “traits such as ‘neuroticism and involvement in crimes’ and ‘narcissism, Machiavellianism, or psychopathy’,” which would mark a potential Airbnb user as potentially “untrustworthy.” Some of these metrics of untrustworthiness, such as affiliation with hate websites or being “a known fraudster or scammer,” make sense. Others appear to be more subjective. Personality traits linked to lower scores include such abstract traits as “badness” and “neuroticism”; behavior traits linked to lower scores include “involvement with drugs or alcohol,” or “authoring online content with negative language” (a description that basically would apply to every blogger ever).
As Xbiz later reported, the patent’s software would score users poorly if they were associated with “sex work” or had been “involved in pornography,” and Flour is not the only adult performer who claims to have been targeted by Airbnb. Last year, adult performer Sara Jay told the Daily Beast that she too had her account terminated without warning or explanation; when she asked why, Airbnb’s legal team said that it had found evidence she had “advertised sexual services,” such as a link to her website and an escort site operating out of Panama. (The escort site, Jay said, had used her photo without consent.) While the story didn’t explain how, exactly, the website had discovered Jay was a sex worker to begin with, something like software that sweeps your digital footprint for arbitrary “untrustworthiness” characteristics potentially could.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, Airbnb denied “us[ing] the methods listed in the patent as suggested” in the Evening Standard story. “As with any other company, there are a number of patents we file, ranging from searching listings to automating booking availability, and it does not mean we necessarily implement all or part of what’s in them,” the spokesperson says. But this is not the same as saying that Airbnb does not use methods similar to those listed in the patent, or that they do not use the methods listed in the patent at all. When asked about why Flour was banned from the platform specifically, the Airbnb spokesperson said that she was “removed over a year before Airbnb acquired Trooly, and therefore the patent,” though a Skift piece announcing the acquisition says that Trooly had been “helping Airbnb authenticate user identities since 2015.”
In terms of the specific screening methods it does use, the spokesperson said that Airbnb “screens all hosts and guests globally against regulatory, terrorist, and sanctions watch lists” and runs “background checks for certain felony convictions, sex offender registrations, or significant misdemeanors.” Such a thorough vetting process is obviously necessary in light of Airbnb’s history of fielding sexual assault claims and a recent fatal shooting at a party house. But they don’t account for why women like Flour would be banned from the service simply on the basis of their professions, or potential future algorithms that may or may not use external factors such as social media profiles to deem a user’s worthiness.
When asked what Airbnb’s specific policy on sex workers was, the spokesperson said, “We do not allow sex work in Airbnb listings and have policies in place to enforce this rule” and that these policies predate the acquisition of the patent. He declined to specify what these policies were, or how Airbnb determines that sex work is taking place at a listing, but a Medium post from 2018 by Airbnb’s global head of trust and risk management Nick Shapiro may offer some insight. In the post, Shapiro announced that the platform would be teaming up with the anti-trafficking organization Polaris to combine the “unique digital footprint” of Airbnb users with Polaris’ back-end data and analysis “to mine for signs of human trafficking in real time.” But trafficking is not the same as consensual sex work, and being a sex worker is not the same as using Airbnb specifically to do sex work; whatever screening methods Airbnb is using, it seems unlikely they’d be sophisticated enough to differentiate between those factors.
Flour never heard from Airbnb why she was banned in the first place, and since it’s been almost four years since she was kicked off the platform, she doesn’t expect to. But the kicker, for her, wasn’t getting banned for no reason. It was receiving an email from Airbnb, just a few months after, asking users to sign a Community commitment “to fight bias.”
“They wouldn’t reply to my support emails,” she says. “But they sent me spam about how their platform was anti-discrimination.”
Thurs., Jan. 9, 2020, 10:37 am: This post has been updated with a statement from Airbnb regarding its policy on sex work.