Thursday, 30 November 2017 13:14

Data deficits and the regulation of the sharing economy

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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Last year I attended a terrific workshop at UBC’s Allard School of Law. The workshop was titled ‘Property in the City’, and panelists presented work on a broad range of issues relating to law in the urban environment. A special issue of the UBC Law Review has just been published featuring some of the output of this workshop. The issue contains my own paper (discussed below and available here) that explores skirmishes over access to and use of Airbnb platform data.

Airbnb is a ‘sharing economy’ platform that facilitates the booking of short-term accommodation. The company is premised on the idea that many urban dwellers have excess space – rooms in homes or apartments – or have space they do not use at certain periods of the year (entire homes or apartments while on vacation, for example) – and that a digital marketplace can maximize efficient use of this space by matching those seeking temporary accommodation with those having excess space. The Airbnb web site claims that it “connects people to unique travel experiences at any price point” and at the same time “is the easiest way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions.”

This characterization of Airbnb is open to challenge. Several studies, including ones by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the City of Vancouver, and the NY State Attorney General suggest that a significant number of units for rent on Airbnb are offered as part of commercial enterprises. The description also belies Airbnb’s disruptive impact. The re-characterization and commodification of ‘surplus’ private spaces neatly evades the regulatory frameworks designed for the marketing of short-term accommodation and leaves licensed short-term accommodation providers complaining that their highly regulated businesses are being undermined by competition from those not bearing the same regulatory burdens. At the same time, many housing advocates and city officials are concerned about the impact of platforms such as Airbnb on the availability and affordability of long-term housing.

These challenges are made more difficult to address by the fact that the data needed to understand the impact of platform companies, along with data about short-term rentals that would otherwise be captured through regulatory processes, are effectively privatized in the hands of Airbnb. Data deficits of this kind pose a challenge to governments, civil society and researchers..

My paper explores the impact of a company such as Airbnb on cities from the perspective of data. I argue that platform-based, short-term rental activities have a fundamental impact on what data are available to municipal governments who struggle to regulate in the public interest, as well as to civil society groups and researchers that attempt to understand urban housing issues. The impacts of platform companies are therefore not just disruptive of incumbent industries; they disrupt planning and regulatory processes by masking activities and creating data deficits. My paper considers some of the currently available solutions to the data deficits, which range from self-help type recourses such as data scraping to entering into data-sharing agreements with the platform companies. Each of these solutions has its limits and drawbacks. I argue that further action may be required by governments to ensure their data needs are adequately met.

Although this paper focuses on Airbnb, it is worth noting that the data deficits discussed in the paper are merely a part of a larger context in which evolving technologies shift control over some kinds of data from public to private hands. Ensuring the ability of governments and civil society to collect, retain, and share data of a sufficient quality to both enable and to enhance governance, transparency, and accountability should be priorities for municipal governments, and should also be supported by law and policy at provincial and federal levels.



Teresa Scassa

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