Let’s help Airbnb rebuild the bridge it just burned

[Trieste, Italy, 12:02am Friday 21 May 2013 — As I say in the comments here, Airbnb has responded to this post, explaining that a bug in the system was involved. While they're rebuilding the bridge with us, the bridge remains burned with other customers as long as their Verified ID system retains its current requirements. So I still think they need help and that good hackers and loyal customers should provide it. — Doc]

My wife and I are veteran Airbnb customers who have been happy with the company from the start. We like the prices, the experiences, the whole thing. As happy customers, we have also been spreading the love far and wide, pitching many new customers on Airbnb as a better way to stay when traveling. We want to continue spreading that love, even though we — and many other loyal customers — are now on the far side of a bridge Airbnb burned when it launched its new identity Verified ID system, which they explain (at that link) this way:

Verified ID provides a connection between the online and offline spaces. Airbnb users can earn a “Verified ID” badge on their profile by providing their online identity (via existing Airbnb reviews, LinkedIn, or Facebook) and matching it to offline ID documentation, such as confirming personal information or scanning a photo ID. The name provided by both channels must match for verification to succeed.

Starting today, Airbnb will require a random 25% of users in the USA to go through the Verified ID process. Soon, we’ll expand this requirement to users around the world. We hope that hosts and guests worldwide will see the benefits of interacting with users who complete Verified ID. Our goal is for all Airbnb members to have Verified ID eventually.

Any Airbnb host can now require their prospective guests to obtain Verified IDs before booking. Trust runs in both directions, so any host who requests this condition must also get verified.

Some of the comments under the post were positive, but many went the other way. Here are a few…

Jon:

I am an Airbnb host. Naturally, safety is always a concern. Despite that, I find this move objectionable, dishonest, misguided, and outright offensive.

  1. As a host, it is up to me to choose who I allow in my home. I like that I can decide how many requirements to place on my guests. Should I choose to place strict requirements, I get more protection and probably fewer bookings. I like having the choice. Airbnb just took the choice away from me and I’m not happy about it.
  2. You are making it substantially harder for guests to book on Airbnb. These standards will reduce the number of bookings we receive as hosts. You reduce our bookings and remove our ability to choose. Hosts should have the ability to choose.
  3. You want people to send you their photo ID / passport? Are you out of your *&#%& mind? Banks lose customer data all the time and they have some of the most stringent standards possible. Despite that, you pretend that you all are immune. You claim that having people send some of their most personal information over the internet will make them safer. You don’t make them safer; you make them MUCH LESS SAFE. When you have your data breached and you get sued, you will deserve every bit of the penalty.
  4. Why did you require a random 25% of users? Why not all users? Because you know you’d get too much negative feedback all at once and you could control the situation better if you phase it in. Either you are lying or you are putting hosts at risk. Shameful either way.
  5. “enhanced trust” I hate your Orwellian crock of sh&# phrasing. You should help the prison system rebrand their “full body cavity search”
  6. As a traveler myself, I was one of the 25% selected for “enhanced trust”. I have over 50 positive reviews from guests and hosts alike. You know where I live! There is no more trust that could possibly be had. Use a little common sense. This is the kind of nonsense I’d expect from the DMV, not from a blossoming enterprise.
  7. When the hell did facebook become an authority on people’s identities? I suspect that you have much more interesting motives for forcing people to connect their profiles to facebook. Quit trying to mine data under the guise of trust.
  • Deborah:

    my Facebook account did not work for Airbnb so they asked me to make a personal video talking about such things as why i like my neighborhood. I’m sorry, but I find this creepy. think of the inevitable steps up: photos of tattoos or birthmarks? proof of baptism? defense of fashion choices? that fragrant blend of californian cumbayah and capitalism. yechh….

  • Also from Deborah:

    I was just trying to book a short stay and the rigmarole and emails this verification process generated was ridiculous, but what caused me to cancel the reservation was this weird audition video request. Nor will I ever have anything further to do with Airbnb; not because of the hassle, but because this new verification process is invasive and puts my identity at risk. I have never encountered any comparable vetting for any purpose and it’s depressing to realize people will unthinkingly accept this kind of exploitation of information. I guess the thinking is if you value your privacy and identity above “trust” you don’t measure up to the Airbnb “community”. And is it a “community”? Really??

  • kim:

    well this is irritating. i have neither a facebook nor linkedin account, nor do i want either. i’ve been a positively-reviewed airbnb member for 2 years. although this article says it will look at positive reviews as online verification, it does not seem to be the case.
    and as for the 24/7 customer service? at this moment there is NO chat available, phone number is reserved for emergencies, and they are not responding to e-mail. so my booking is in limbo. if you’re going to implement this new feature, at least have the customer service to support it!<

  • Mle Davis

    Agree with others that the new verification process is insane and insulting. I have used your service for two years. My “reality” has been verified by my hosts and my guests: people in four countries have left feedback about their experiences with me. We have talked on the phone. You have my social security number from when you sent me tax documents. You have my credit card on file. I”m happy to send you my drivers license, but don’t see why you would need it, when you already have the rest. There is just no way I”m linking up my facebook account so you can datamine my friends, keep an eye on my day to day activity, or examine my relationships. There are enough safety checks on me through the relationship we’ve already developed. Please reconsider this stupidity.

  • E:

    Just had a reservation cancelled tonight because I did not complete the verification process. I inadvertently skipped the second step in the process which is give them access to my facebook account and contacts. I guess it doesn’t matter that I have been a member for almost three years and have rented through airbnb more than 15 times and have ALL positive reviews. I see this as an attempt to gather data for marketing purposes. Why else would they need access to facebook or linked in. Airbnb is going down hill. I have had more and more problems with them over the past 6 months. It was a great idea in the begining, but I think they are imploding!

  • Tony:

    I’m new to airbnb and I’m not crazy about the idea of scanning my driver’s license or passport and sending that to you. How do I know the faceless employees of whatever company which gets this information can be trusted with it?…
    … before you go to these extraordinary steps, why not fix the site so that friends can give me references. As I said, I’m new and (per your instructions) have asked friends through the site (both by email and facebook) to provide me with a reference. No one has done so yet and three have written back to say that they click the link and then don’t see any way to provide me with a reference. Two of these people are now concerned that this was just a way for someone to get their email addresses and add them to a spam list.

  • Lisa:

    I am so relieved to hear all these comments about the verification process. I am feeling DEEPLY resentful of this. I used Airbnb successfully this year, and am horrified to see what they’re asking. It is so invasive I can’t believe it. Like most people here, I’m sure, I’ve done vacation rentals, car rentals, bought tickets, booked everything and anything without this level of scrutiny. I finally capitulated to four levels of the scrutiny. This is ABSURD. If they want to offer this, then fine. But let the users decide how much they’re sharing and let hosts decide what they need.

Well, it was our bad luck to fall into that 25% when we booked an Airbnb place in Rome last weekend. My wife, an experienced and savvy traveler (with more than two million miles on one airline alone), always books our reservations, and expected the usual smooth and pleasant process when she was suddenly faced with this crazy new verification routine. Here’s how Airbnb explained her options after she declined to login with Facebook or Linkedin (neither of which she belongs to):

If you’re unable to verify your online ID using Facebook or LinkedIn, or if your account does not automatically satisfy the online ID requirements, you can create a video profile to serve as an alternative.

Your video will be visible on your profile as a live introduction of yourself to other Airbnb community members. To create your video profile, visit the “Photos and Video” section under Edit Profile. Consider using your first name, your current city, what you like about your neighborhood, and what you are looking for in a travel experience! Please do not include information about your government-issued ID, payment information, email address, last name, or any other personally identifiable information in your profile video.

After you’ve created a video profile, please email  trust at airbnb.com and we’ll help you complete the verification process.

I’ll pause to note here that my wife and and I have been around identity systems development for a very long time. In my case I’ve keynoted nearly ever Digital ID World, and have co-hosted all sixteen Internet Identity Workshops. Neither of us have ever seen an identity verification routine that required making a video to share with others.  We were, like… what?

So, after she declined to make the video and Airbnb cancelled our order, she sent an email to  trust at airbnb.com that included the following:

I’m perfectly happy to verify through a personal cloud provider ie: Personal.com, Virtrue, OwnYourInfo, Mydex, Gli.ph, or a trust network like Respect Network or Qiy. I suggest that you take a look at some of these services that work on the side of the customer, without exposing them to further surveillance and tracking of their personal data.

Airbnb replied,

Thank you for your email. Please accept our apologies if our verification process caused you any distress. As we are constantly working on improving our product and services, I’ll pass your feedback on accordingly. In the future, you can also submit your opinions or ideas on www.airbnb.com/feedback. Even when we are unable to accommodate all requests, we always value feedback from the community.

Airbnb is a platform for connecting individuals interested in having unique and personalized experiences. This is how Airbnb differs from the norm, as not everyone on Airbnb operates their business outside of Airbnb the way a normal bed and breakfast would. Please consider that you will be staying in the home or residence of another individual. At Airbnb we’re constantly striving to improve the level of trust between our users to instill confidence in the transactions between our users. Our verification process was designed to help improve that level of trust and allow users to fully enjoy their experience on Airbnb.

At Airbnb we’re constantly striving to improve the level of trust between our users to instill confidence in the transactions between our users. Our verification process was designed to help improve that level of trust and allow users to fully enjoy their experience on Airbnb.

Recent positive reviews do count towards verifying your Online identity but the reviews you received did not satisfy our system’s verification requirements. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a Facebook or LinkedIn account, the video profile is the only alternative available at this point. We offer several alternatives in hopes that one will work for you, but we understand that these situations do arise. That’s why we offer you the opportunity to verify your account by recording a 30 second video in which you can introduce yourself to the Airbnb community.

Please know that if you don’t want your video profile to be public, you can also record the clip using a digital camera or a smartphone and attach it to your response to this message. We’ll then verify your account without publishing the video.

This makes no sense to me. Are they saying Airbnb operates a social business, meaning one that places a premium on people exposing themselves to others, rather than on minimizing exposure? Are they saying that everybody in the Airbnb community is a potential “friend,” and thats’s why it makes sense to login with Facebook or Linkedin? And why the video? What’s to keep any community member from copying that video — or any personal information exposed through social media — and spreading it out on the open Web? Why would anybody trust Airbnb to keep that kind of thing from happening?

Given that Ghostery finds Airbnb using only six tracking systems (Facebook Connect, Google AdWords Conversion, Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, MixPanel and New Relic) — a relatively small number for a commercial site — I doubt that Airbnb just wants to play the same advertising game that B2B companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and other “social” sites play. Why should they, when they operate one of those very rare things in the “social” age: a real B2C business, for customers who actually pay for goods and services. That’s an enviable and valuable thing. And they’re screwing it up.

The “Verified ID” program fails because it alienates both the supply and the demand sides of the marketplace. It turns away good, loyal, paying customers, and denies hosts those customers’ bookings. Worse, it filters through only those customers who are comfortable exposing themselves through social media and in video performances. Do they really want to do that?

At some point it will dawn on Airbnb that this new system is worse than broken. When that dawn comes I suggest they do three things:

  1. Look into the list of companies and projects my wife mentioned above
  2. Join the Personal Identity Ecosystem Consortium (PDE.cc)
  3. Follow what’s happening with VRM and personal clouds — and get involved with those too

I also invite readers to weigh in with their own positive suggestions. No complaints or put-downs, please. We’re here to help.

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25 comments

  1. Devon’s avatar

    A line in the sand moment.

    Thanks for the detailed account of the experience that you and your wife have had with airbnb. I find your assessment against a backdrop of time and use to be very valuable.

    “Internet workers” have started to make a bit of a mockery of themselves. Customer service, having been exported to the far edges of the Earth, is now akin to speaking with aliens from another world. Behind the vale of “just earning a paycheck”, social media companies, frat-net implementations, and bots have produced a collection of so-called “senior decision makers” that have no clue what Human nature is. That’s an Internet-sized problem.

    Google+ is the same fiasco dressed up in different clothes affecting different routines. Facebook is the epicenter of the nuclear blast.

    This is what “Identity-Slavery” operates like. I hope that other people, lesser thinkers and writers and doers than yourself Doc, are frustrated deeply by this experience. I hope that the 25% US population that feels the disgrace of “Identity-Slavery” spreads the word about their experience with airbnb. I hope that International users become disgruntled.

    And when they do… I hope they realize that the hostage-holding power being enforced upon them by “adamant request” was done to them by their sovereign structure. Because the Internet is highlighting that Society has made us all “Identity-Slaves”, and the Internet just won’t work the right way because of it.

    Freedom and Security are sisters on a see-saw in the dataverse… you either originate Identity sovereignty at the correct point in the process, or you can’t. Everyone pays the price for that.

    What is Identity Sovereignty?
    http://www.moxytongue.com/2012/02/what-is-sovereign-source-authority.html

  2. kurt’s avatar

    doc
    i love how even when you’re personally involved, you can separate yourself from the circumstances and make positive suggestions, AirBnB is probably one of the best properties out there, but recent moves appear not lame, but suicidal…. let’s hope the management team sees the light soon.. and follows some of your ideas..

  3. Drummond Reed’s avatar

    Doc, I appreciate your invitation for positive suggestions. As a relative newcomer to Airbnb (my first booking with them was just a few months ago), I was surprised by how much verification info they needed then, so this new requirement is even more surprising.

    That said, I’d like to follow up constructively and suggest that Airbnb consider becoming a Founding Partner of the Respect Network, since our goal is to build a P2P trust network of connected personal clouds. Such a network will allow members to develop and share socially-verified identity, reputation, relationship, and other personal data without invasive verification requirements.

    We’d be happy to talk with Airbnb and put them in touch with any of our 24 current Founding Partners.

  4. Randall’s avatar

    This is for protection purposes. Are you really opposed to posting a 30 second video introducing yourself? A photo ID, not a government issue ID. You could probably use most library cards.

    I think your desire for privacy is overzealous and your response to their requirements is way out of pace with their request.

    “The “Verified ID” program fails because it alienates both the supply and the demand sides of the marketplace.”
    I’m not alienated on either side of the system. Nor are the gross majority of there customers (95%)

    “Worse, it filters through only those customers who are comfortable exposing themselves through social media and in video performances. Do they really want to do that?”
    Yes. Yes they do.

    I’m sorry to say that I don’t think the problem is Airbnb…, I think the problem might be with you.

  5. Josh’s avatar

    I love Lisa’s response the best. It’s like she’s trying to be the Little Engine that Couldn’t: http://www.reddit.com/r/TumblrInAction/comments/1e6glz/white_girl_schools_chineseamerican_sjw_awkward/c9xerg9

    > I am feeling DEEPLY resentful of this.

    Yeah, I’m sure.

    > I used Airbnb successfully this year, and am horrified to see what they’re asking. It is so invasive I can’t believe it.

    Me, too. It’s just like like they’re asking to verify that your hymen is intact, only worse!

    > Like most people here, I’m sure, I’ve done vacation rentals, car rentals, bought tickets, booked everything and anything without this level of scrutiny.

    Exactly, how dare some one ask for something like a credit card or id to verify who you are when you rent a car or villa or book a flight. Oh wait, that’s exactly what they did.

  6. Randall’s avatar

    also I wish I had the ability to edit my comment and correct grammar errors.

  7. shankar’s avatar

    With this much need, im pretty tempted to make a new service.

  8. Tim’s avatar

    Just use vrbo.com. Great properties and you just work directly with the owner. No account needed.

  9. David’s avatar

    The problem with this is not that it needs your facebook or phone (which is ok with me, they copied that process from couchsurfing) – it is the fact that airbnb currently is incapable of making their code for the verification work.

    The entire verification site is broken, and any uploading of documents or the “alternative verification by typing in your street” (yeeah, that’s going to proof it’s me…) simply doesn’t work. Customer support isn’t available either.

    So right now you have a bunch of guys sitting in SF with a defunct website function they require everyone to use – and they got their fingers stuck in their ears so noone gets a chance to tell them it’s not working. Great job!

  10. Tim Coulter’s avatar

    Hi Doc, thanks for your response. I agree with everything you mentioned. I wanted to add that in this whole debacle, comments on their blog post about Verified ID are now closed. See here:

    http://blog.airbnb.com/introducing-airbnb-verified-id/

    You have to write your whole comment and submit it before their website will let you know comments are closed. But they’re now stifling public debate on the issue, which is just as troubling.

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, everybody.

    I’m on the road right now, in Italy, short of connectivity and time. So I’ll try to touch on as much as I can, briefly.

    First, I’ve heard from Airbnb. They say the good reviews we already had should have kept us out of the gauntlet we went through, that this was caused by a bug in the system, and that they are manually verifying my wife’s account. That’s good to hear. I still think their “Verified ID” system needs fixing, and am eager to help with that.

    Tim, we’ve also used VRBO. They’re good, but we’ve liked Airbnb better. Just saying.

    Randall, we’ll just have to disagree, I guess.

    Drummond, I hope Airbnb takes up your offer.

    Devon, you nail it as well. Folks, follow Devon’s links and dig his distinctions between sovereign and administrative identities.

    marissa, while the Gawker story stirs up concerns, Airbnb has been a good service to us, and to many other customers and their hosts. So I’d like to help them fix what’s actually broken, and that’s what this post is about.

    And Shankar, let us know if you do start that new service.

    More later when I have time.

  12. marissa harrison’s avatar

    Is this Nathan Blecharczyk someone with whom you would trust all of your personal private information??

    Reading this could change your mind.

    http://gawker.com/5853754/the-seedy-spammy-past-of-airbnbs-co+founder

    (Oh, and BTW, airbnb has turned of the comments regarding its new verification process. No more complaining allowed.)

  13. Doc Searls’s avatar

    New this morning: A post at AirBnB’s nerd blog pointing here, and to this one at Y Combinator’s Hacker News, all responding to my post here. You’ll find 123 comments there so far.

  14. Kevin Cox’s avatar

    AirBNB can solve the problem by giving individuals a choice in how they wish to verify their identity. That is, they can state the problem and give some choices. The verification of the identity can only be seen by the prospective landlords and even there it is first shown in summary with the landlords having to explicitly signin and promise not to reveal to anyone else the details.

    The simplest would be for people who have used AirBNB to show the places where people have previously stayed and give ways for landlords to contact places if necessary.

    AirBNB could also do this through existing personal cloud systems such as those in the Respect network. The person could be invited to verify their identity using one of these services. For example, there will soon be a MygreenID service provided by Edentiti that enables a person to provide verified credentials from the phone.

    If these are not available to people then perhaps the video, passports or drivers licence could be provided.

  15. John Pope’s avatar

    Doc,

    Sober view of privacy relating to the travel and hospitality industries. The VRM movement is alive and growing more prominent in travel. For more commentary on VRM, Big Data, and both’s relationship on the largest eCommerce vertical, check out:

    http://www.tnooz.com/2013/05/20/news/big-data-and-the-hospitality-travel-and-tourism-industry/

    There’s plenty of meat on the bone there, and an occasional reference to yourself in the comments section of the post.

    Your contribution to the discussion would, of course, be very much appreciated.

  16. yourcabs’s avatar

    im pretty much interested to make a new service.

  17. jon’s avatar

    Let’s not help Airbnb. They don’t need any help; they need a kick in the pants.

    Their polished PR messaging smells like total BS to me. It is definitely saddening to think about. We loved airbnb. We enjoy hosting and enjoyed the unique experiences we got while traveling. Those days are over.

    In my view, there has been a very dramatic shift. Where before, each member of the community was valued and respected… now we’re disposable. Critical mass reached; time to cash in.

    I don’t know if there is any possible way Airbnb could change my mind given the level of betrayal I feel.

    Airbnb is just like Facebook. I remember when they were cool; now I fantasize about deleting my account. Having hosted so long on Airbnb, it may take us some time to move away, however that process is definitely in the works.

    We have already found success with Wimdu.comroomorama.com and vrbo.

  18. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Jon, what turned you off to AirBnB? Was it the stuff I wrote about in this blog post, or some other thing or combination of things?

Comments are now closed.