Friday, June 18 2021

Dive In

Hi all, I have decided not to participate at this year’s Championships at Wimbledon and the Olympic Games in Tokyo. It’s never an easy decision to take but after listening to my body and discuss it with my team I understand that it is the right decision. The goal is to prolong my career and continue to do what makes me happy, that is to compete at the highest level and keep fighting for those professional and personal goals at [t]he maximum level of competition.

That’s tennis superstar Rafael Nadal announcing his decision to pull out of two of the sport’s biggest events this year. Soon after, Naomi Osaka said she too won’t be at the tournament this year as she is taking “personal time with friends and family.” Earlier, Roger Federer decided to opt out of the French Open to save his best for Wimbledon.

Big Story

Splainer AMA reminder!

Our next Ask Me Anything is with novelist, podcaster, and radio commentator Sandip Roy (greatly beloved among our splainer audience for his Asterix-themed Bengal explainer). Sandip is the author of the well-received ‘Don’t Let Him Know’, and has long been a keen observer of LGBTQ culture/politics, the Indian diaspora experience and, of course, all things Bengali. And that’s just a fraction of his oeuvre:) 

Want to know more? Listen to his wonderful dispatches from Kolkata for the NPR affiliate in San Francisco. Or check out his Indian Express podcast series or his Mint Lounge column. We think you will greatly enjoy his sharp insight and wry humour. So sign up here for an excellent conversation (open to all subscribers). Time/date: Saturday, June 19 at 6:30 pm.


The controversy over Airbnb’s super-secret ‘safety’ team

TLDR: A Bloomberg Businessweek investigation revealed that the world’s most famous vacation rental company has a ‘black box’ team of specialists to hush up ugly things that happen at its properties. Think murder, rape and more. The story has now been picked up by multiple media outlets—and Airbnb’s stock just happened to fall by 3% after the story was published. 


What’s this ‘black box’ team?

Airbnb calls it the Trust and Safety team—which is comprised of a range of 24/7 ‘response agents’, engineers, law-enforcement liaisons, crisis managers—along with experts in policy, privacy, cyber security, insurance, and fraud. Until recently, it was run by Nick Shapiro, a former deputy chief of staff at the CIA and National Security Council adviser to the Obama White House. According to Bloomberg, the team is made up of about 100 agents in Dublin, Montreal, Singapore, and other cities—and some have emergency-services or military backgrounds.


And what do they do?

According to Shapiro’s interview on the company website, their number one job is to keep Airbnb guests safe while they travel: “While no one can ever take all the risk out of traveling, we work day in and day out to mitigate that risk as best we can and build a safe and trusted environment for travelers.”


But according to Bloomberg, the real purpose of this team—nicknamed the ‘black box’—is to keep Airbnb safe from scandal or bad PR. And it includes ‘safety agents’ who are hired to ‘clean up’ after bad things happen. Sometimes, they have to literally ‘clean up’ as in “hire body-fluid crews to clean blood off carpets, arrange for contractors to cover bullet holes in walls, and deal with hosts who discover dismembered human remains.”


In most cases, however, their job is to whitewash:


“The hardest part of the job, the former agents say, was making peace with their role in keeping cases quiet and ensuring that victims and their families didn’t blame the company. Sometimes they were told to prioritize less traumatic situations involving reality-TV stars and others with big social media followings, which they say made them uncomfortable.”


How do they do that?

One: Money. Airbnb spent $50 million a year in payouts to hosts and guests in recent years.


“Team members have the autonomy to spend whatever it takes to make a victim feel supported, including paying for flights, accommodation, food, counseling, health costs, and sexually transmitted disease testing for rape survivors. A former agent who was at Airbnb for five years describes the approach as shooting ‘the money cannon.’ The team has relocated guests to hotel rooms at 10 times the cost of their booking, paid for round-the-world vacations, and even signed checks for dog-counseling sessions.” 


The aim is to settle quickly in “sensitive” cases and get the victims to sign payout agreements to ensure Airbnb is never mentioned. And as this Observer story shows, even in incidents that do not involve violence—as with a London flat that was trashed by guests—the company often uses payouts to keep a story out of the press.


Point to note: Until 2017, these agreements came with strict nondisclosure clauses that barred the person from ever talking about what happened, asking for more money or suing the company. When the #MeToo movement made NDAs controversial, the clause was replaced with a new one that says payout recipients can’t discuss the terms of their settlement or imply that it’s an admission of wrongdoing on Airbnb’s part.


Two: A mandatory terms of service agreement:


“Anyone registering on the site is required to sign this agreement, which bars legal claims for injury or stress arising from a stay and requires confidential arbitration in the event of a dispute. Former safety agents estimate the company handles thousands of allegations of sexual assault every year, many involving rape. Yet only one case related to a sexual assault has been filed against Airbnb in U.S. courts… Victims’ lawyers say the terms of service are an important reason.”


A good example: of how this works is a 2016 rape case that was widely reported once the Bloomberg story came out. 

  • An Australian woman checked into a New York Airbnb along with a group of her friends. They picked up the keys to the flat from a nearby shop.
  • They went out at night, but the woman returned early—and was alone when a man hiding in the bathroom raped her and fled.
  • When he was caught soon after, the police found a spare set of keys on him. 
  • The pesky issue of the duplicate keys was a big problem for Airbnb—which doesn’t have a key exchange policy.
  • Also a problem: The woman’s friends had signed the terms of service—not the victim herself. 
  • The blackbox team immediately swung into action: “They relocated the woman to a hotel, paid for her mother to fly in from Australia, flew them both home, and offered to cover any health or counseling costs.” 
  • And they later paid $7 million to get her to sign an agreement “not to talk about the settlement “or imply responsibility or liability” on the part of Airbnb or the host.
  • Until Bloomberg flagged it this week, there wasn’t a single media report on the attack—or any mention of Airbnb in the court case.


Why is this such a big deal for Airbnb?

Trust. The company’s business model requires perfect strangers to trust one another. That’s why it makes such a fuss about it on the Airbnb website: “Trust is the fundamental currency of the sharing economy, and it’s at the heart of everything we do [at Airbnb].” And trust requires feeling safe, which again Airbnb insists is a core goal: “Keeping our Airbnb community safe and secure, both online and offline, is our priority.”


Anything that undermines that trust will result in fewer rentals and more lawsuits. Also: more government regulation if the frequency of violent incidents at its properties becomes widely known. It is also why the actual work of its Trust and Safety team is kept secret. As one sexual assault victim’s lawyer says: 


“Everything is getting sent to arbitration so nobody really knows [about these incidents]. The only thing that really motivates [Airbnb] is the threat...of bad PR or a nightmare in the press.”


So Airbnb isn’t as safe as it seems?


In today’s edition

Headlines That Matter

  • Chinese astronauts take off
  • The problem of the 'mediocre' male manager
  • Zara caught in Israel-Palestine row
  • Batman’s big no-no in bed


Weekend Advisory

  • Do you want to know all the wild things guests do at luxury hotels?
  • Why is Silicon Valley is no longer in love with India?

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