New Filing & Working Paper on the Regulation of the Sharing Economy

by on May 26, 2015 · 0 comments

Along with colleagues at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, I am releasing two major new reports today dealing with the regulation of the sharing economy. The first report is a 20-page filing to the Federal Trade Commission that we are submitting to the agency for its upcoming June 9th workshop on “The “Sharing” Economy: Issues Facing Platforms, Participants, and Regulators.” We have been invited to participate in that event and I will be speaking on the fourth panel of the workshop. The filing I am submitting today for that workshop was co-authored with my Mercatus colleagues Christopher Koopman and Matt Mitchell.

The second report we are releasing today is a new 47-page working paper entitled, “How the Internet, the Sharing Economy, and Reputational Feedback Mechanisms Solve the ‘Lemons Problem.'” This study was co-authored with my Mercatus colleagues Christopher Koopman, Anne Hobson, and Chris Kuiper.

I will summarize each report briefly here.

In our new filing to the FTC, we address the five questions the Commission set forth in its workshop annoucement. Those five questions are as follows:

  • How can state and local regulators meet legitimate regulatory goals (such as protecting consumers, and promoting public health and safety) in connection with their oversight of sharing economy platforms and business models, without also restraining competition or hindering innovation?
  • How have sharing economy platforms affected competition, innovation, consumer choice, and platform participants in the sectors in which they operate? How might they in the future?
  • What consumer protection issues—including privacy and data security, online reviews and disclosures, and claims about earnings and costs—do these platforms raise, and who is responsible for addressing these issues?
  • What particular concerns or issues do sharing economy transactions raise regarding the protection of platform participants? What responsibility does a sharing economy platform bear for consumer injury arising from transactions undertaken through the platform?
  • How effective are reputation systems and other trust mechanisms, such as the vetting of sellers, insurance coverage, or complaint procedures, in encouraging consumers and suppliers to do business on sharing economy platforms?

We provide detailed answers to each of these questions as well as one additional major question that was not posed by the Commission in its workshop notice but which is, no doubt, on the minds of many at the agency and outside it: What should the FTC do about state and local barriers to entry and innovation that might be thwarting the growth of the sharing economy? (I blogged about that issue here a couple of weeks ago and our filing includes that discussion.)

Please take a look at our filing for detailed answers to each of these questions. (Incidentally, our filing is an extension of an earlier working paper that Koopman, Mitchell, and I released late last year on “The Sharing Economy and Consumer Protection Regulation: The Case for Policy Change.”) But, to briefly highlight the thrust of our argument, here’s a passage from our new filing:

As the debate surrounding the sharing economy moves forward, policymakers must keep in mind that merely because regulations were once justified on the grounds of consumer protection does not mean they accomplished those goals or that they are still needed today. Even well-intentioned policies must be judged against real-world evidence. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that many traditional consumer protection regulations hurt consumers; in the words of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, they are often “cumbersome, and some are just plain protectionist.”

Markets, competition, reputational systems, and ongoing innovation often solve problems better than regulation when they are given a chance to do so. There are two reasons for this. First, market imperfections create powerful profit opportunities for entrepreneurs who are able to find ways to correct them. Second, regulatory solutions too often undermine competition and lock in inefficient business models.

We continue on to explain exactly why that is the case, while also offering some constructive solutions to other issues that are on the minds of regulators.

Meanwhile, the new working paper we are releasing today provides much greater detail on the fifth of the five questions the FTC posed in its workshop notice regarding reputation systems and other trust mechanisms. Here is the abstract from the paper:

This paper argues that the sharing economy—through the use of the Internet and real time reputational feedback mechanisms—is providing a solution to the lemons problem that many regulators have spent decades attempting to overcome. Section I provides an overview of the sharing economy and traces its rapid growth. Section II revisits the lemons theory as well as the various regulatory solutions proposed to deal with the problem of asymmetric information. Section III discusses the relationship between reputation and trust and analyzes how reputational incentives affect commercial interactions. Section IV discusses how information asymmetries were addressed in the pre-Internet era. It also discusses how the evolution of both the Internet and information systems (especially the reputational feedback mechanisms of the sharing economy) addresses the lemons problem. Section V explains how these new realities affect public policy and concludes that asymmetric information is not a legitimate rationale for policy intervention in light of technological changes. We also argue that continued use of this rationale to regulate in the name of consumer protection might, in fact, make consumers worse off. This has ramifications for the current debate over regulation of the sharing economy.

We believe that our research makes it clear “how the sharing economy relies upon—and has helped spur the growth of—sophisticated reputational feedback mechanisms that facilitate online trust and commerce, overcoming many of the information asymmetries that seemed intractable… just a generation ago. In combination with online review services and other information-sharing technologies enabled by the Internet,” we conclude, “these reputational tools can help create more effective, and largely self-regulating, markets that provide more information to more individuals than ever before.”

We look forward to continuing engagement with officials at the FTC and other policymakers at the federal, state, and even international level on these issues. We hope our research will help legislators and regulators find sensible ways to adjust policy for the sharing economy so as not to derail the sort of “permissionless innovation” that has thus far powered this exciting sector and produced the many pro-consumer benefits flowing from it. Check out our filing and new paper for more details.

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