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Tech v Trump - Airbnb's refugee offer looks like generosity on others behalf

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton January 29, 2017
Tech leaders continue to speak out against Trump's immigrant and refugee ban, but some in the sharing economy aren't doing quite so well.

JFK protests

Over the weekend, there have been many uplifting reactions against President Trump's immigrant and refugee ban imposed by Executive Order.

Social media has provided unparalleled platforms for organising and sharing examples of real-world local activism. At the same time, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest, have been echo chambers for like-minded people to speak into and hear their own views bouncing back - both pro and anti.

In amongst the memes, actors’ speeches, footage of airport protests, anti-Trump petitions, and more, have been the voices of a number of US technology providers, speaking out from Silicon Valley against the manifest erosion of American values and its threat to social cohesion and trade.

That’s great to see. In many cases, their businesses have been built on the same diversity and openness that diginomica actively supports too - see Why does a tech media site have a focus on diversity?  For example, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff reminded his employees last night that:

America should not forget who we truly are — a nation of immigrants and a light unto other nations…This is an important time for us all to be reminded that Equality is a core value at Salesforce. Regardless of changing conditions in the world around us, we will continue to be guided by this value. Salesforce welcomes all.

Meanwhile Dheeraj Pandey, CEO of Nutanix, contacted us with a very personal testimony:

Even though you might think this only affects 7-10 countries, the interpretation pervades our daily lives in much bigger ways than what the order originally intended. I emigrated from a country, India, which has 180 million Muslims, the 2nd largest population of Muslims in the world. As a Hindu, I am married to a Christian, and my father-in-law is laid to rest in a Muslim country that I am now connected to for posterity. I don't know whether as an American citizen, I personally will be subject to a retaliatory "extreme vetting" when I visit his grave to pay homage.

One of our very best and an early employee is a Muslim. He is married to a Hindu, and this company owes a lot of its success to his personal sacrifices. One of our rising stars in sales leadership hails from Pakistan, is married to an Indian Hindu, and is one of the most genuine philanthropists I've ever met. There are many families in this company and around the world that have torn down the walls of religion. Unfortunately, for the first time in modern history, we've brought religion to the forefront of our daily lexicon.


So all told, and with the caveat that certain very large providers to the US government appear to be biting their tongues and need to be heard from soon, the tech industry has emerged with credit, although not universally.

It’s not been the best 24 hours for some leaders in the sharing economy. While Uber CEO Travis Kalanick did voice concern about the immigration ban, that wasn’t enough for Uber drivers to join in with the Yellow Cab taxi one hour strike to show solidarity with demonstrators at JFK airport against Trump’s Executive Order.

This turned out to be such a faux pax that even the normally thick-skinned Uber twigged it had a PR problem on its hands, insisting that it hadn’t meant to break the strike. Nonetheless, #DeleteUber has been trending on social media this weekend.

On the other hand, Lyft seems to have won a lot of plaudits with its million dollar donation to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which is leading the legal challenges to the immigration ban.

But one disruptive technology provider’s story has grabbed more headlines than most. At the weekend, Airbnb announced that its three million properties would be offered free to refugees in desperate need of housing.

Or at least, that’s the basic headline that’s been endlessly Tweeted and shared, a superb example of news moving at the speed of noise courtesy of the likes of the BBC.

But is it true? Well, er, no. 

The first problem with the story is that hospitality exchange Airbnb owns little apart from some IP. Its real-estate is virtual. Those ‘three million properties’ belong to up to three million private individuals.

From the coverage so far, the story is that Airbnb has taken to the Twitter-sphere, reportedly offering those homes free of charge to people in need.  While that's a noble and admirable move, it's one that it has no right to make without the active, individual consent of up to three million people.

Second, the offer has been positioned as a socially-motivated business putting its hands into its own pockets to help people fleeing war-torn countries, reaching out to vulnerable people who find themselves trapped by Trump’s actions.

In reality, it’s nothing of the sort. So what’s actually happening?

Airbnb is directing members to a webpage that makes the reality clear -  it is asking them to sign up voluntarily by adding their properties to a list. It says:

If you would like to help by hosting these people for free, please add your listing here. If needed, we will reach out to you over the coming days to verify availability and request your support. We appreciate your generosity!

In other words, Airbnb is asking its members to offer their properties free of charge individually, not actually offering to help refugees itself. Nor is it saying that it will cover the cost. The generosity will be that of any individual members who sign up.

Which isn't quite the same thing as all those headlines would suggest...

My take

That Airbnb is setting up an online exchange for people to offer their properties free to refugees is a good thing, a genuine example of using the network effect for social good. That story alone would have been enough and diginomica commends Airbnb for wanting to help and for taking practical steps to do so.

But it’s unfortunate that the impression has arisen of both the company and its CEO as generous financial benefactors with a massive property portfolio of their own to offer. At the very least, that impression hasn't been negated. The result? Tens of thousands of social shares of some highly misleading headlines.

Certainly, some of Airbnb’s members believe they have been misled too, with a number of angry US voices saying, “How dare you offer my property without my permission?” and accusing the company of playing politics with their personal security.

But their posts have been largely obscured by the tens of thousands of Likes for CEO Brian Chesky’s personal generosity.

Airbnb isn’t actually offering all members’ properties free to refugees at all, but it seems happy to appear to be doing so. If deliberate, and we'd hope it isn't, that would be a cynical and expedient move in marketing terms, especially as it has no financial stake of its own.

That’s ironic, as Airbnb has been criticised in the past for not defending tenants against the political views of individual landlords.

Personally, I hope that the ‘three million properties’ are all offered for free, but the reality will – of course – be different. At present, no real-world figures have been put against the offer. Let’s hope that Airbnb publishes them soon.

We commend anyone who sets aside personal profit and welcomes refugees into their property. But let’s hope, too, that Airbnb protects any members whose safety and security is compromised as a result of their personal generosity and their own social conscience.

In the meantime, here's a thought.  Mr Chesky - offer your own property to refugees, and get all of your employees to do the same. Then the reality will match the rhetoric and that will be a very good thing. 

Image credit - YouTube

Disclosure - Chris Middleton is not an Airbnb member, and does not own a rental property.
Additional reporting by Stuart Lauchlan.
At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.

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