Airbnb Provides a Lesson in Digital Ethics

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Airbnb, and similar services such as HomeAway, have revolutionized the way people travel by offering affordable options by choosing to rent a room from a local rather than selecting a hotel or resort for lodging while on vacation. They have also opened a new stream of income to those with some extra space, and created a unique person to person marketplace for travel.

These services have also opened a series of ethical quandaries – ones that force us to be proactive about our morality as we look to make choices in a world with few (or at least, less established) rules, and seemingly lax adherence to the rules that do exist.

Today we would like to relate a story from a real family, undoubtedly not much different from yours. This family was looking on Airbnb for a vacation rental for an upcoming trip. Airbnb does not allow users to contact each other directly, this is part of their Terms of Service and is designed to both protect the user, and to ensure that Airbnb is able to make their commission by facilitating the transaction through their site. It may be a person to person marketplace, but Airbnb serves as a facilitator of these transactions.

However, the family found many property landlords who had found a way to circumvent the protections in place for sharing private and contact related information. While the messaging system on the site flags and stops people from sending a phone number to another user, many get around it by “tricking” the algorithm that blocks offending messages, so as to not set off the detection in place for this sort of thing. To avoid giving anyone the tools (and thus encouraging them) to trick the system, we will not divulge the technique here.

By contacting an owner directly, the family may have been able to negotiate a better rate, or at the very least, avoid paying the commission charged by Airbnb. Is this right for them to do? Does it represent an immoral behavior to cut the site out of its commission, as the site did help the family and the landlord find each other? Is this a creative way of working within the system Airbnb created, or a violation of it akin to stealing or lying?

While one may not agree with Airbnb’s policy of not letting users contact each other outside of the site, by logging on, one is agreeing to abide by the rules laid out. The practice of using simple tricks to make contact outside of site guidelines is not unique to this site. What if you see the same property listed on another website that does provide contact information? Does that change your analysis? Let your family discuss this and decide for itself what the right thing to do is in this situation.

To enhance your discussion of this article, we recommend our recent pieces: Orbitz, United and “Hidden City”: A Lawsuit to Change The Travel Industry and Digital Ethics?”, “The Ethics of Proxy Servers: A Discussion” and “You Can Unlock More On Netflix, But Should You?”

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