How difficult are interviews on Airbnb

DiscriminationAirbnb's difficult dealings with sex workers

Looking for accommodation for your next vacation? Almost 7.9 million Germans used the Airbnb online platform for this in 2018. But there are people who seem to find Airbnb making it difficult to book accommodation. According to media reports, this affects sex workers in the USA and Great Britain, for example. Sex workers who wanted to use Airbnb for private vacation were also reportedly blocked. Research by netzpolitik.org shows that there are also cases in German-speaking countries, although sex work is legal in Germany and Switzerland.

The term sex worker: in denotes members of the prostitution industry who provide consensual sexual services. He differentiates their activities from forced prostitution.

Airbnb has been cooperating with Polaris Project since 2018. The cooperation was preceded by reports and complaints about so-called pop-up brothels in Airbnb accommodations. Polaris Project works against human trafficking. According to a report by Airbnb, it uses data from the Polaris Project to find evidence of human trafficking in users. Polaris Project has been criticized for fighting sex work in general and for not distinguishing between consensual sex work and forced prostitution.

Airbnb throws sex workers: inside off the platform

Especially where prostitution is only allowed in brothels or as a home visit to clients, sex workers often switch to private accommodation due to financial need. This is the case, for example, in four federal states in Austria. The federal states regulate prostitution there independently, but apartment prostitution is prohibited everywhere. Sex workers have to pay the brothel operator rent for their room. Christian Knappik told netzpolitik.org that many people are forced into illegal prostitution in self-rented Airbnb apartments. He is the spokesman for the Austrian online forum sexworker.at and also looks after its emergency hotline. "Desperate women call here every day that the police lured into Airbnb apartments," he says.

The police's method: Fake suitors book a: n prostitute: n and ask them: n to rent accommodation. The officers access it there. A corresponding document of the prostitution control by the police and associated chat histories are available at netzpolitik.org. Not only the prostitutes, but also the landlords expect high fines in this case, Christian Knappik speaks of several thousand euros.

But he also knows specific cases in which the Airbnb accounts of sex workers have been blocked. In two cases from Austria, prostitutes were unable to book accommodation on the grounds that "the rental was doubtful," reports Christian Knappik. Those affected had used Airbnb for their work. As a result, their accounts were blocked. He suspects that Airbnb used information from the payment service provider PayPal for these measures. "PayPal blocks everything that has to do with eroticism," says Knappik. In its usage policy, the payment service prohibits the use for "activities" that "have to do with transactions relating to [...] certain sexually oriented materials or services [...]."

Cases also in Germany and Switzerland

In the case of a German sex worker, Airbnb also accused her of “commercial use,” says Knappik. The victim told him that she emailed Airbnb but received no response. A sex worker from Switzerland experienced something similar and described it in the sexworker.at forum, reports Christian Knappik. How the restrictions came about is not transparent for those affected.

Airbnb has a patent for an algorithm that is supposed to calculate the supposed trustworthiness of tenants. It also includes points of contact with sex work in the ranking. The company denies to netzpolitik.org that it is using this procedure for risk assessment in Germany: "We are currently not using this patent to carry out processes via users in Germany." (Own translation)

Elissa M. Redmiles reported on Twitter about sex workers who had problems with Airbnb accounts, even when they wanted to use the platform privately. She conducts research in the field of digital security and inequality for Microsoft Research and the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems. In their interview study among sex workers in Germany and Switzerland, several participants reported in detail that their Airbnb accounts had been blocked. Elissa Redmiles ‘study has not yet appeared, but we were able to see an overview section of her work.

Comparison with official data

The fact that Airbnb throws people who do sex work from its platform is apparently part of its security strategy. The company writes on its German website:

We use predictive methods and machine learning to evaluate hundreds of signals on the spot that help us identify and stop suspicious activity before it even occurs.

The company states that “all hosts and guests worldwide are compared with lists of authorities, terrorists and sanctions” - “even if, of course, no monitoring system is perfect.” In the USA, the background of users is also checked. This means that individuals are screened for previous convictions for criminal offenses, registration of sex offenders and other “serious offenses”, as the company explains elsewhere. It also lets profile photos and any images sent via the message threads run through the so-called PhotoDNA database, which checks it for child pornographic content.

Sex work with crime on a par

These are all measures designed to enable hosts and guests to have a safe and positive experience. There is a fine line between caution and exclusion. In addition to sex work, the patented algorithm also classifies “negative personality traits” and drug users as untrustworthy.

The associated patent states that the algorithm is based on personality traits such as “goodness”, “conscientiousness”, “openness”, “tolerance”, “neuroticism”, “narcissism” and “psychopathy”. Behavioral characteristics that the algorithm takes into account include: creation of fake profiles, drug and alcohol consumption, connections to hate-spreading websites and organizations, as well as sex work, crime, fraud and pornography. It also says:

The trustworthiness rating can be based on personality and behavioral traits that predict the likelihood that the person will exhibit positive behavior in an online or offline interaction. (own translation)

Sex work and pornography are cited in the patent in one sentence with criminal acts. For the company, they are an indication of the low level of trustworthiness of tenants. According to the patent, other behavioral and personality traits take a back seat in the assessment. The algorithm weights characteristics such as sex work or participation in a crime (as the perpetrator: in) correspondingly more heavily.

The company tells us that it did not develop the patent itself. It was taken over in 2014 with the purchase of the startup Trooly, which is probably jointly responsible for the background checks at Airbnb. "As with any other company, there are a number of patents," the company said. "That does not mean that we necessarily implement all aspects of what is in them."

We also asked Airbnb where it uses this algorithm and how, from which companies and authorities it obtains data and how long it is stored. We have not received any answers to these questions. However, the company emphasizes that it does not allow sexual services in advertisements and enforces this rule with appropriate guidelines.

Laws do not capture all algorithmic decisions

“In principle, companies can decide for themselves who is active on their platforms within the framework of private autonomy,” says Louisa Specht, professor and holder of the chair for civil law, information and data law at the University of Bonn. However, it refers to a case law of the Federal Constitutional Court, according to which people from an event that is open to an unrestricted group of people may not be excluded without an objective reason. “In my opinion, this can be extended to the digital sector,” says Specht.

The impact of algorithmic decisions can also fall under the European anti-discrimination guidelines and the General Equal Treatment Act (AGG). According to the current legal situation, Airbnb does not violate either one or the other, says Daniel Zimmer, legal scholar at the Chair of Commercial and Business Law at the University of Bonn. “The leasing of rooms to tradespeople is basically not one of the issues covered by anti-discrimination law.” The AGG also does not cover the disadvantage of professional groups. However, the need for regulation of algorithms is discussed again and again. One of several possible solutions could be the "extension of conventional anti-discrimination law to other areas of life", suggests Zimmer for discussion.

Specht is considering a disclosure requirement for algorithms that would make it easier to prove discrimination. According to the State Media Treaty, such an obligation already exists for search engines. In general, the lawyer doubts that the Airbnb algorithm would be harmless in terms of data protection law. She addresses the admissibility of data processing, in particular of data on the health and sexual life of the users. According to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), users also have the right “not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing - including profiling,” says Louisa Specht.

Those affected can rarely defend themselves

We cannot examine Airbnb's decision-making processes in a specific case. Christian Knappik is bound to secrecy; those affected contact him in confidence via the hotline and the forum. But he knows about the desperation of those affected. “That triggers powerlessness for women and men,” he says. "The main problem is that sensitive data is passed on."

For users, it is not clear which data Airbnb can access - which can become an existential problem for sex workers. In Austria they are acting against the law by renting apartments to work, but many see no other way out.

It is also difficult to say how many sex workers in Germany have problems with Airbnb. At the Federal Association for Erotic and Sexual Services e. V. (BesD) is not an issue, says a spokeswoman to netzpolitik.org. Prostitutes used the platform for their work, even if they did not openly state it. However, nobody in the association was able to report any account locks, either in a professional or private context.

Criminalization of sex work is a problem

It remains to be seen whether and when methods such as the Airbnb patented algorithm will be adequately taken into account in anti-discrimination and data protection laws. There is no objective reason why sex workers sometimes apparently cannot rent accommodation for private purposes.

In addition, the patent for the algorithm is approved in the USA and Europe alike, although the countries regulate prostitution very differently. Sex workers: sometimes act more, sometimes less, in compliance with the law when renting apartments for business purposes.

For Christian Knappik, a fundamental debate about human rights in prostitution is hidden behind the problem. "If sex workers are no longer allowed to book rooms on Airbnb, that goes against the European Convention on Human Rights: freedom of career choice and sexual self-determination," he says. He rejects the principle that sex work is criminalized. The sex life and privacy of sex workers and their customers must be respected by the law and the authorities.

About the author

Charlotte

Charlotte is an intern with us from mid-July to mid-October. When she's not spending the summer in Berlin, she studies at the Cologne School of Journalism for Politics & Economics and is doing a master's in media studies. She participated in the data project @notszuverbergen and is particularly interested in surveillance, political activism and basic rights online. Looks forward to post by e-mail, encrypted if you like, or on Twitter.
Published 08/17/2020 at 1:17 PM