Online neighbors forum alters rules to stop racial profiling

AP News
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Posted: May 12, 2016 6:04 PM
Online neighbors forum alters rules to stop racial profiling

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Nextdoor.com., a forum meant to let neighbors share recommendations on plumbers or ask for help finding missing dogs, is struggling with claims that people are using it to racially profile those they find suspicious.

Some residents in racially diverse Oakland, California, say people were posting warnings about minorities, flagging black men walking by too slowly, for example.

In an effort to remedy that, the company will no longer allow immediate postings on its crime and safety section, said Nirav Tolia, chief executive of the San Francisco-based company. It will require people reporting a crime or warning about a suspicious person to fill out several forms before their post is published.

"If you make it really easy to post anything, people don't have to think," Tolia said. "But if you insert these decision points, it forces them to think about what they are doing."

The forms will ask users to detail criminal behavior before they describe someone. A description must give details from head to toe, and not just list a race. The site also now scans for mentions of race that may be offensive.

If a racial profiling post somehow gets through anyway, anyone can flag it for removal.

Wendy Patrick, a San Diego State University business ethics lecturer and attorney, said the site functions like virtual neighborhood watch communities, with the goal of promoting public safety.

"The changes made by Nextdoor are designed to encourage citizens to focus on behavior, not appearance alone," she said.

But the changes could arguably be seen as a double-edged sword.

"On the one hand, Nextdoor is forcing people to think through what they see and not just stereotype or jump to conclusions, and pay attention to details that will be extremely useful to neighbors, as well as to law enforcement," Patrick said. "On the other hand, some people will not report suspicious behavior if it is going to be too time consuming, or involve a lot of paperwork_even when they observe something that is very concerning."

The 5-year-old site, which sees 3 million messages in its crime and safety section each day, has been testing the new rules in the San Francisco Bay Area and several East Coast cities since April. It plans to take them nationwide by summer.

The changes come after Oakland-based Neighbors for Racial Justice complained to city officials there last October that the site was being used to post the racially inspired warnings.

"Sometimes there would be posts about a black man walking by too slowly, and they would take his picture and post it on Nextdoor," said Shikira Porter, an Oakland resident and Neighbors for Racial Justice member.

She wrote asking for the users who made such postings to clarify what crime had been committed. Her group later met with Nextdoor officials but eventually took the concerns to Oakland Councilwoman Annie Campbell Washington.

A council committee led by the councilwoman has met since last year with Nextdoor representatives to address the issue.

"The work that Nextdoor has done is truly groundbreaking, and they were willing to meet with myself and members of the community and really dig deep to take on the issue of racial profiling and make real change in the way their users are posting," Campbell Washington said.

Porter, who helped create the changes, said she hopes having to fill out the forms will force neighbors to really examine those they deem suspicious.

"Maybe if they watch a little longer, they'll see that people are just being in the world, just like them," Porter said.