Combatting Bad Actors in a Decentralized World

There’s an interesting discussion over on Hacker News right now over allegations that black people have a difficult time booking rooms with AirBnB.  (Quickly:  I don’t think that the original article offers truly compelling evidence of racism, but I also don’t have a hard time imagining that this kind of racism is prevalent).

One point made several times, perhaps most succinctly by rayiner, is:

There’s a really simple explanatory mechanism, which is that even if an AirBnB host is bound by the same anti-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act as a Hyatt, which is probably true, holding individual service providers accountable at that level is basically impossible. And to the extent that the “sharing economy” involves more individuals rather than businesses that can be sued, you will see more discrimination.

This seems like it’s on-the-nose, and something that society would benefit from figuring a way to deal with.  The status quo is that lawsuits are such a gigantic pain-in-the-ass, and so expensive, that they’re only worth it when the potential payout is enormous.  That means that small actors can get away with quite a lot of bad behavior.  But small actors are otherwise quite attractive!  They aren’t wealth-concentrating in the same way that large actors are, they provide potential income mobility on a democratic scale, etc.

So what we need is a relatively low-cost way to bring a relatively low-penalty suit against small actors.  Which already exists: small-claims court.  I can’t find anything which suggests whether it’s possible to sue in small claims court for racial discrimination — it looks like it’s overwhelmingly used for breach of contract with an obvious amount of non-punitive damages.  But a fairly minor broadening of the applicability of small-claims court, and perhaps allowing judges in small claims courts to award (small) punitive damages seems like it’s what we need.


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