On July 11, Dr Alex Chung delivered an invited talk at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, titled: ‘Legal and regulatory challenges of the sharing economy.’  Joined on the panel by his colleague Dr Janet Hui Xue from the University of Sydney, they presented comparative case studies of Uber in the UK and Didi in China. 

As a STEaPP researcher working on the ECSEPA project led by Dr Madeline Carr, Alex has taught classes on the legal and regulatory aspects of the sharing economy in the MPA and DPA courses, focusing on Uber and Airbnb cases.

The annual United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) events between 9 to 13 July comprised of the following Intergovernmental Group of Experts (IGE) and Research Partnership Platform (RPP) Meetings: the 3rd Session of IGE Meeting on Consumer Protection, Law and Policy; the 9th Meeting of the RPP; and the 17th IGE Meeting on Competition Law and Policy.  The invitation to the week-long 2018 UNCTAD events was extended from Dr Ying Yu, the Deputy Director of the Oxford University One Belt One Road research programme for which Alex acts as the Coordinator.

In their talks, Alex and Janet highlighted the regulatory challenges of the sharing economy facing the UK Government and the Chinese Government, which mainly arise from the conflicting interests between the government, industry players, and the public.  They explored the legal implications of these emergent issues as they pertain to areas of consumer protection, antitrust, employment rights, and data sharing and data protection. 

Alex discussed how the rapid expansion and diversification of the sharing economy’s transportation sector is creating a host of fresh problems that endanger public safety and threaten the jobs of traditional operators, if insufficient and improper measures are implemented by the regulatory bodies.  Examples of recent cases of serious offences against both taxi drivers and customers, including those that ended in deaths, were used to illustrate these pressing concerns.  Mass protests against Uber’s anti-competitive practices and a general lack of due care to the precarious working conditions of its drivers have resulted as a consequence of an under-regulated transportation sector, which are finally prompting regulators to act. 

Furthermore, as a smooth and safe operating environment of ride hailing and sharing services is dependent upon the scope and efficiency with which data is gathered by the platforms and shared with its partners, there are less visible areas of concern that urgently need to be addressed, Janet revealed.  For instance, in an attempt to capture other markets in the transportation sector, China’s Didi is collecting data on an ever-increasing scale and sharing it with all manners of public and private agencies, which is indeed a cause for concern. These include Chinese police forces, the tax agency, telecommunication service providers, and mobile payment suppliers as well as other financial organisations. Without proper data protection regulatory mechanisms in place to prevent abuse in the usage of the personal data acquired, such prevalent data sharing practice in China has dire ethical and legal implications from a consumer protection perspective if the transportation sector remains unchecked at its current pace of growth, she explained.

Alex and Janet raised the question of how to strike the right balance between an appropriate amount of regulation against disruptive technologies yet minimising the potential for stifling innovation.  They recognised that there are no easy solutions as regulators will need to play catch up given the way things stand, but their analyses concluded with calls for further scholarly investigation into several research gaps that require immediate attention. 

These areas include the need to understand whether current rules and laws may be over-stretched in their application to sharing economy, or whether it makes more sense to create new tailor-made rules for particular intended regulatory purposes according to the sector’s needs.  They emphasised that, at any rate, clearer definitions for the sharing economy need to be created in order to reduce legal grey areas.  For instance, it is important to distinguish whether a platform and its patent technology should be legally characterised as an online information intermediary, an underlying service provider, or both.  Further, how do such distinctions apply to variations of the platform and technology that involve similar types of service within the sector in question and across sectors?  What factors should be considered in determining which type of laws and regulations ought to be applied?  For example, would it be most suitable for a given context to employ hard, soft or collaborative regulation; and should they be in the form of proactive or reactive regulation? Moreover, in terms of data governance, regulators need to clarify whether service providers should take joint liability in the case of data breaches, data misuse, data verification, data standardisation, and data sharing with business partners.  If inappropriately implemented, such data issues can lead to serious consequences for data justice and fair competition.

The presentations were well-received by the audience and garnered the attention of representatives from various countries.  During the Q&A session, the Director of Consumer Law from the UK’s Competition and Market’s Authority shared similar observations on how Uber’s control over service quality, service delivery, and pricing schemes is conducive to unfair competition and has repercussions for the employment conditions of the labour force.  An EU representative pointed out that a new EUROPA report is available for consultation, which examines the idea of standardising definitions for platforms across the sharing economy and harmonising its interpretations between jurisdictions.  The Chairman of the largest India-based voluntary consumer organization in Asia, Mumbai Grahak Panchayat, who presented his research on the sharing economy at the 2017 UNCTAD RPP session, called for future collaborations on a large-scale, international study led by UNCTAD to compare the sharing economies of multiple developing and developed countries to further identify research gaps and establish best practices.

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