It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, at least according to innovative new platforms Uber and Airbnb. Silicon Valley has found itself as the subject of ridicule after Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky compared his firm’s defiance of local housing ordinances with that of Ghandi’s passive resistance to British rule. Meanwhile, a tweeter compared Uber to Rosa Parks, citing her rejection of unjust laws as common ground between the app and the civil rights catalyst.
While some may take issue with the comparisons, they perhaps demonstrate a wider trend that spans the ‘sharing economy’ corporates. Platforms such as Airbnb and Uber monetize convenience rather commodities. They benefit from business models that haven’t yet been restricted by regulatory legislation, and are booming. They are ahead of the curve, and cities are fighting to keep up. Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City, moved to limit the number of Uber cars ‘choking city streets’ during the heaviest hours of congestion, only to be met by celebrity endorsements urging its users to write to the city hall in protest. Mayor de Blasio ultimately stood down. Airbnb is battling similar legislation to curb the short-term holiday rentals that, whilst convenient for landlords and tourists, reduce supply for local residents whilst driving rents up.
The problem is a complex one, and certainly one without a simple solution. Economists and Lawyers should engage with the intricacies of the economic models and legal systems, but the debate does not stop there. PPE and HSPS students might debate the intersection of the public and private sectors, with Politics students analysing the pros and cons of the libertarian-leaning philosophies that underpin these new modes of business. Wider questioning might engage with the implications of major decisions such as de Blasio’s: whilst it may be the case that major cities such as New York and London would benefit from more competition, should that be decided by the residents themselves via their elected representatives, or by international companies? Whose interests do the companies represent, and do they want what is best for local residents? It is important to remember that when accused of discrimination against blind or disabled customers, Uber was quick to assert that it is simply a communications platform, and not the kind of employer to be bound by workplace regulation. Is this a valid defence? If so, is it justifiable?