Wed, Dec 24, 2014 - Page 9 News List

‘Sharing economy’ could be the Internet’s most divisive revolution yet

Concerns are growing that the philosophy behind the new wave of Internet star names such as Airbnb and Uber simply disguises a rapacious business model

By Charles Arthur  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain people

You can not only find someone online willing to rent you a room in their house, but someone who will share their car, their desk, their power tools or their child’s toys. You can find someone to walk your dog, deliver your dinner, assemble your furniture, lend you clothes or hold your place in line for the latest iPhone.

This is the “sharing economy,” hailed by the government for creating “micro-entrepreneurs” and by economists for putting “excess capacity” to use. Traditional businesses and workers — from hotel owners to taxi drivers — have been less welcoming.

The sector is growing fast. Airbnb claims to have more than 1 million rooms available, compared with the 13 million rooms provided by formal hotel chains (not including bed and breakfasts). Uber can claim thousands of drivers — some poached from other lift services or working for more than one. Not all companies are doing so well: TaskRabbit, which puts people in touch with vetted “taskers” to take whatever chore you want off your hands, has struggled to grow beyond its current 19 cities, including London.

As poster children for the sharing economy — even if Uber shrugs off the title — both Uber and Airbnb have been accused of riding roughshod over the regulations other companies have to play by. The list of places where Uber has been banned now runs to Germany; the US state of Virginia; New Delhi; Belgium; the state of New South Wales in Australia; Spain; Portland, Oregon (it went ahead anyway); Thailand and Seoul, South Korea. A number of those bans were later lifted. Taiwan and Chongqing, China, are also reported to be mulling bans.

The ride-hailing service, started by Travis Kalanick after he found he could not use his smartphone to hail a cab in Paris, has been the lightning rod for much of the anger at the disruption being caused by these new companies.

In a number of cities, including London and Paris, taxi drivers have protested at the presence of the firm, claiming its avoidance of many regulations enables it to undercut them on price; in other cities, Uber “drivers” — the company insists they are not its employees — have protested too.

Meanwhile Airbnb, started by two designers who in 2008 hosted three people looking for a temporary place to stay, has had a series of run-ins with US regulators. New York state in particular has taken the company to task over whether its activity constitutes sub-letting, thus breaking the leases of many residents who offered rooms or homes. In April, New York state authorities found that two-thirds of the apartments being offered there broke the law in that way.

In Amsterdam last week the company agreed to collect potentially millions of euros in tourist taxes after complaints from hoteliers.

However, for Patrick Robinson, Airbnb’s public policy director in Europe, there is no question its users should enjoy lighter regulation than some other businesses.

“It’s manifestly obvious to me that somebody renting out their flat shouldn’t have to obey the same rules as a Park Lane hotel,” he said.

His views were echoed by a government-commissioned report last month that recommended “[existing] regulations must be examined to ensure they are still fit for purpose and meet peoples’ expectations — particularly for accommodation and task-sharing platforms.”

The recommendation was that regulations should change, but only for those small groups — and the government seems broadly sympathetic. In a foreword to the report, British Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock said that new services such as Airbnb and PeoplePerHour “are unlocking a new generation of micro-entrepreneurs.”

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