Squeezes and Sanctions: Airbnb's Exasperating History

Airbnb has been a magnet for trouble even within the magnetosphere of startup culture.
Squeezes and Sanctions: Airbnb's Exasperating History

Airbnb was billed as the startup era’s disruption of the hotel industry, which obviously means it was immediately buried in controversy, complaints, and reminders of why the hotel industry is so inefficient in the first place. From conditions you wouldn’t accept from the shadiest youth hostel to international political tensions, Airbnb has been a magnet for trouble even within the magnetosphere of startup culture.

Why’s It Called Airbnb, Anyway?

Air mattress

(Rick McCharles/Flickr)

Airbnb founders Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk, and Joe Gebbia got the idea for the platform when they decided to offer three air mattresses for rent in their San Francisco apartment. It makes sense, as it’s not too dissimilar from a few trips we took in college, but that sort of thing would get your listing mocked on Twitter today.

Their Logo is So Needlessly Complicated

Airbnb logo

(Ivan Radic/Flickr)

In the spirit of startup tech, the Airbnb logo, which is just a series of loops, has a backstory worthy of an art history thesis if it were actually art. The various curves are supposed to be “a head to represent people, a location icon to represent place, a heart for love, and then an A for Airbnb.” It even has a pretentious name, the “Bélo,” when it might as well be called the Ballsack.

Havana Nights


(Spencer Everett/Unsplash)

U.S.–Cuba relations have been pretty tense for, oh, a while, so when Obama relaxed trade restrictions with the country in 2015, a lot of companies were still pretty leery of hopping on over. Not Airbnb, though. They were one of the first companies to expand into Cuba even though most of the island had no internet access and travelers were still severely restricted, resulting in a completely unsurprising five-figure fine by the Treasury Department for violating those restrictions.

Squeezing the Rental Market

It wasn’t the hotel industry, which already had too many customers than it could accommodate, that Airbnb ended up disrupting -- it was the housing market. Property owners realized they could make a lot more money as DIY hoteliers without much more effort than a small gift basket and a snack bowl than they could renting to long-term tenants, lowering the supply of rental units in major cities and consequently raising the average rent. Now we’re in a housing crisis, but at least we also have your adult son’s former bed to sleep in.

San Francisco Protests

San Francisco

(Aaron Kato/Unsplash)

The issue attracted dissent as early as 2015, when San Francisco residents occupied the lobby of Airbnb headquarters in support of an upcoming proposition that would restrict the company (which failed). They were presumably not offered any artisanal hand soaps.

The New York Law

New York City

(Andreas Kruck/Unsplash)

The next year, New York passed a law to effectively illegalize Airbnb empires by prohibiting the rental of entire units for under 30 days unless the host is present the whole time in response to the housing crisis. Airbnb spent $10 million trying to fight the law and promised to sue after it was passed, but it’s still in effect, so their accountant must have put them in time out.

Racial Discrimination

In 2016, a Harvard Business School study pointed out that Airbnb hosts were 16% less likely to accept a guest with an ethically unacceptable name, and Airbnb’s own investigation revealed that it might have been a bad idea to make a giant photo part of guests’ profiles. They responded by … making the photos a li’l smaller.

Racial Discrimination in China

(Kuzzat Altay/Unsplash)

Things were even worse in China, where many hosts came right out and said “No Uyghurs or Tibetans” in their listings, insisting they were forbidden by local laws. That’s not entirely untrue -- hosts are legally required to register Uyghur guests with the local police, but not wanting that hassle doesn’t mean they can just say “No Uyghurs, please” because China also has discrimination laws. When reporters alerted Airbnb to the problem, they took down … about half the listings.

Background Checks

In 2018, it was reported that Airbnb didn’t require ID from hosts, making it all but impossible to conduct background checks. That’s pretty important when guests have been sexually assaulted and murdered by hosts, so the next year, the company began the onerous process of verifying all seven million of its listings.

Bait and Switch Scams

Just about since its founding, scammers have used the loopholes in Airbnb’s system to book listings that may or may not even exist, cancel guests at the last minute, offer them Buffalo Bill’s pit instead, and refuse to refund them. After Vice published an article about the scam, the freaking FBI had to get involved.

The West Bank Controversy

West Bank separation wall

(Soman/Wikimedia Commons)

In 2018, Airbnb announced that it would remove listings of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. They got a lot of praise from people to approved of the move but also a lot of accusations of discrimination and lawsuits because it turns out this is kind of a hairy issue. They opted instead to keep the listings but donate the money they earned them, so now everyone’s mad.

Chinese Government Data Sharing

You may think Facebook and Google are evil, and they def are, but at least they refused the Chinese government’s demands to share information on their users. Airbnb, not so much. In fact, the company volunteered information that’s not even required by the government, such as private messages, which pissed off their adorably named “chief trust officer” so much that he quit.

We Built This City on Genocide

Genocide protest

(Kuzzat Altay/Unsplash)

In 2021, it was discovered that Airbnb had listed properties on land owned by groups in China that had been sanctioned by the U.S. for freaking genocide. When confronted, Airbnb responded that they were pretty sure the sanctions didn’t apply to them, mentioning nothing about the freaking genocide.

The 2022 Olympics

Beijing National Stadium

(Peter23/Wikimedia Commons)

China and its genocides were also the subject of Airbnb’s most recent scandal when they refused to drop their sponsorship of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. The company explained that their contract with the Olympic committee wasn’t “organized around individual Games, but rather, a long-term partnership organized around the economic empowerment of individual athletes.” In other words, the economic empowerment of Airbnb.

Top image: bruce mars/Unsplash

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