Sharing works but we must define the rules, Herald Sun, Thursday 26 March
The founders of the accommodation app AirBNB got their start selling “Obama-Os” novelty cereal at the 2008 Democratic presidential conventions.
Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia used the money raised to build a beta version of the app, which won them a spot at the famous Y Combinator start-up accelerator at Stanford University and $20,000 in seed funding.
Today, AirBNB is valued at roughly $US10 billion. More than 30 million guests have already stayed in an AirBNB-listed property in one of 34,000 cities across 190 countries.
We’re getting used to hearing stories like that: the little digital company that took the world by storm. The clever idea that turned an industry on its head and made millions. Beyond AirBNB, the past few years have seen ride-sharing apps like Uber, freelancing services like AirTasker, goods-sharing sites like Spinlister and the pet-minding service Pawshake.
Often gathered under the banner of the “sharing economy”, “collaborative consumption” or the “peer-to-peer market”, app-based services have significant potential.
Australia has a housing affordability crisis, yet there are nine million spare bedrooms across the nation. Our major cities are in gridlock, yet the vast majority of cars carry only one person. Sharing economy services can help us make more efficient use of the world’s existing stock of bedrooms, cars and more.
I am not, however, an uncritical cheerleader for this emerging sector. At the moment, some sharing economy services operate outside the rules and regulations that exist to protect public safety, ensure people pay their fair share and guarantee workers’ rights.
Labor wants to see Australians share the benefits of the sharing economy. We also want to make sure we have the right rules in place to protect workers, consumers and the public good as they do so. This is tricky balance and it will be a challenge to get it right. But we owe it to Australian consumers to take this challenge seriously.
That’s why Labor has released a discussion paper exploring what rules we really need to govern the sharing economy. It sets out the main regulatory challenges raised by this new sector and the principles that will guide Labor’s response.
First, there are worker’s rights. The sharing economy shows us just how much the world of work is changing: instead of working for an employer, we can each become CEO of our own microbusiness. Rather than working set hours on someone else’s schedule, we can design our own workday.
That suits plenty of people well, but the flip side of all this flexibility can be the loss of important protections and rights. We need to ensure that this new economy generates jobs that are secure enough for workers to be able to buy a house, raise a family and take a holiday.
Second, public safety and consumer protections. Many people who use sharing economy services do so because they’re cheaper and that matters, particularly to low-income consumers. But Australian consumers quite reasonably expect that they’ll be covered by the right kind of insurance if they are injured, that they will have legal avenues to seek redress if they get ripped off and that the people they’re buying goods or services from won’t knowingly put them in harm’s way.
Third, accessibility. Australia is a country where we work to break down obstacles for people with disabilities and those facing other forms of disadvantage. Labor is concerned that there hasn’t been enough discussion of access issues in the conversation about the sharing economy so far. Government has a proper role in addressing these accessibility and equity issues as part of designing fair rules for the sharing economy.
Finally, a level playing field. Labor understands our goal as policymakers isn’t to pick winners by protecting some industries through regulation, or letting others gain an advantage from the lack of it. Our task is to set up a system that supports fair competition and then let consumers decide what best meets their needs and preferences.
Australian consumers, like those around the world, have embraced these new services. Whether or not any one company survives, the model of peer-to-peer, app-enabled service delivery clearly resonates. We would be squibbing our responsibilities as policymakers if we simply tried to shut these services down or punted addressing them into the too-hard basket.
Recently, a woman called my office to talk about how hiring out her spare room through AirBNB had allowed her to meet her mortgage repayments after a difficult divorce. For her, the service wasn’t some techie toy for hipsters. It was a lifeline at a time when she really needed one.
There may be very real benefits in this emerging economy. Getting the rules right will mean millions of Australians can share them.