Regulating the Sharing Economy: Fostering Innovation and Safety

Steven Groschen, MJLST Managing Editor

The sharing economy is a marketplace for individuals to exchange goods and services directly with one another. In the past, sharing economy participants, whom wished to lend their property and time directly to others, had the challenge of finding a way to connect with individuals seeking to borrow property and services. The internet and other modern communication systems have provided opportunities for overcoming this barrier. Consequently, the cost of matching a particular individual’s demand with another individual’s supply (i.e. transaction costs) within the sharing economy has been greatly reduced. As a result, sharing is quickly becoming a cost-effective and environmentally friendly option for ordinary consumers.

Not everyone is fond of the sharing economy movement. Long-established institutions and industries are experiencing increased competition by competitors whom are not always required to play by the same rules. For instance, the increasingly popular ride sharing system, Uber, has received scrutiny from players in the current taxi system. They argue that Uber is unfairly competing because it is not subject to the same regulations as traditional taxi drivers.

Regulators are challenged to find the optimal method of regulating the emerging sharing economy. Enacting regulations that are too strict will impede the innovation generated by sharing economy startup companies. On the other hand, regulations that are too lenient may threaten another core value: protecting the safety of consumers. Unregulated and non-centrally controlled systems of transportation run the risk of having a wide variance in outcomes. One Uber taxi driver may be perfectly safe, whereas another creates a hazard on the streets. Some are concerned there should be more government oversight and regulation addressing these risky drivers.

Professor Sofia Ranchordás suggests “establishing, broader, principle-based regulation[s]” is the answer to the legal problems created by the sharing economy. The use of principles rather than specific regulations acknowledges that technology is constantly changing. Broad regulations are designed to be more adaptable to changes in technology. As a result, this method of regulation protects two of the important goals of the sharing economy. First, bottom-up innovation is not stifled by rigid regulations that prohibit experimentation. Startup companies in the sharing economy are free to experiment so long as they stay within the boundaries of the broad principles. Second, there is more flexibility to create regulations addressing concerns for safety and general consumer protection. Regulators are not restricted to a narrow definition of what is “safe,” thus technology changes affecting safety are more easily managed.