Is Racial Discrimination Spreading Online?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014
(AP photo)

Redlining, the discriminatory practice using information such as someone’s neighborhood to discriminate, has not died despite laws designed to eradicate it. It just moved to the Internet.


With so much data swirling about online, it’s easier for businesses or individuals to discover demographic information about people and to use that to discriminate against them, according to several studies.


“Just as neighborhoods can serve as a proxy for racial or ethnic identity, there are new worries that big data technologies could be used to ‘digitally redline’ unwanted groups, either as customers, employees, tenants or recipients of credit,” a May 2014 White House report says.


Anyone armed with a computer and algorithms can do it, and probably get away with it. That’s because the “technologies of automated decision-making are opaque and largely inaccessible to the average person,” the report adds.


The practices of one website can make it easy for a user to discriminate. A study by Harvard Business School researchers examined, a housing rental website, and found it may facilitate online discrimination. The site requires that prospective hosts post photos of themselves on the site. Hosts can offer to rent out a room, several rooms, or an entire house or apartment.


Black people providing lodging were paid less than non-blacks, according to researchers Benjamin G. Edelman and Michael Luca, who had to qualify their findings by noting the difference in rental fees could have been affected by geography. Nevertheless, non-black hosts earned “roughly 12% more for a similar apartment with similar ratings and photos relative to black hosts,” they wrote.


“Despite the potential of the Internet to reduce discrimination, our results suggest that social platforms such as Airbnb may have the opposite effect. Full of salient pictures and social profiles, these platforms make it easy to discriminate — as evidenced by the significant penalty faced by a black host trying to conduct business on Airbnb,” Edelman and Luca wrote. The researchers suggest that the site allow listings with less-prominent photos, or in the case of the rental of an entire dwelling, no photos of the host at all.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The Possibilities of Digital Racial Discrimination: Research on E-Commerce, Online Marketplaces (Journalist’s Resource)

Digital Discrimination: The Case of (by Benjamin G. Edelman and Michael Luca, Harvard Business School)


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