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<nettime> Astroturf 'Apptivism' and the 'Sharing Economy' (Mondato)

Original to:

(Bwo Eduard de Jong Frz.)

September 8, 2015.

The capacity of the internet to connect buyers and sellers in new 
marketplaces is almost as old as the world wide web itself. From 
Craigslist and Ebay to Amazon, Alibaba and The Silk Road, home computers 
and internet access meant that virtual markets sprang up across the 
world selling everything under the sun. In retrospect, it was only a 
matter of time before this came to be extended to services, from remote 
personal assistants to accommodation and shared rides. Moreover, the 
surge in popularity of smartphones (in both developed and developing 
markets) has meant that the combination of GPS-enabled location services 
and powerful handheld computers has facilitated the commodification and 
monetization of just about everything, from parking spaces to downtime.

The "Sharing Economy"

To some, this movement towards what is often called the "sharing 
economy" represents the further democratization of the economy and the 
classic liberal ambition of efficient markets freed from regulation, and 
shorn of "unfair and unreasonable obstacles". To skeptics, it means a 
potential risk to consumers' safety and security, the unfair 
undercutting of professional service providers who are required to 
adhere to regulatory and licensing requirements, and who must bear the 
compliance costs that accompany them. Rather than a "sharing economy" 
former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has described the phenomenon 
as a "share-the-scraps economy... a way to circumvent labor laws that set 
minimal standards for wages, hours, and working conditions... a reversion 
to the piece work of the nineteenth century -- when workers had no power 
and no legal rights, took all the risks, and worked all hours for almost 
nothing." Despite such sentiments, however, it seems pretty clear that 
the latter camp is losing the battle, if not the war.

Clearly, many factors have converged to create this dramatic shift that 
poses a direct challenge to municipal and national regulatory 
authorities anywhere there is a mobile phone reception. The bind that 
regulators and their political bosses find themselves in is exacerbated 
by the seeming grassroots nature of the sharing economy's participants: 
whether as consumers or producers/sellers, those who benefit from 
reduced prices or supplemental income are ordinary citizens (i.e. 
voters). By their very nature, such individuals are relatively 
tech-savvy, and are self-motivators. This makes them a tricky 
constituency to deal with.

This has made "resistance to change" and taking the side of "the 
entrenched interests of the old economy" politically fraught. The tech 
companies that sit in the middle of every transaction are able to summon 
up an army of amateur lobbyists and social media activists to make the 
case for them. Most of these individuals have a small vested interest in 
the success of their campaign: the continued convenience or reduced cost 
or income that the sharing economy provides them. Quite often, the 
call-to-arms via email from the tech company employs the language of 
grassroots movements, urging users of its service to contact the 
relevant public servants, while often providing the contact information 
enabling them to do so. In addition, the big players in the sharing 
economy, most notably Uber, are able to call upon the services of what 
The Washington Post called "an armada of contract lobbyists, some of the 
most skilled and politically connected representatives in at least 50 
U.S. cities and states."


The tech companies, of course, have even larger vested interests in 
ensuring the success of their campaign against regulation. In its last 
funding round Uber raised US$1 billion, a sum that values the company at 
just shy of $51 billion. Uber's ongoing regulatory tussles with New York 
City provide a useful illustration of the growing power of Silicon 
Valley's big players. After several years of back-and-forth between the 
company and the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission, Uber made a new 
hire to take up the role of its first ever head of policy development 
and community engagement: the recently-resigned deputy commissioner of 
the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.

Fighting a losing battle across the United States, those representing 
"the entrenched interests of the old economy" appear to be resorting to 
desperation tactics. Mayor Bill De Blasio proposed a temporary cap on 
Uber car numbers in Manhattan (estimated to be around 10% of all 
vehicles in lower Manhattan during evening rush hour), pending the 
results of a study into Uber's effects on traffic and congestion in the 
city. Quite why a cap would be necessary while the study was ongoing was 
never made clear, raising suspicions that it was a thinly-veiled attempt 
to limit the app's growth without taking the company on in a 
head-to-head battle. If that was the calculation it was misguided and 

Uber's response was possibly the most aggressive mobilization of its 
users seen to date: in addition to buttons representing the normal 
selection of Uber vehicles, the app also featured an new option, simply 
labeled "DE BLASIO". By choosing the De Blasio option the user was 
offered a 25-minute wait time, along with another button simply inviting 
the user to press it and "See what happens". What happened was an 
invitation to reach out to the Mayor and City Council to express 
dissatisfaction with the proposed study. Combined with an old-fashioned 
campaign of lobbying and radio advertisements, Uber's activation of its 
New York user base was able to see the "cap and study" plan stopped dead 
in its tracks.

Vested Interests

The proponents of app-based services such as AirBnB, Lyft, Uber, 
TaskRabbit and their like may be guilty of exaggeration when they cast 
their regulatory struggles as the "old economy versus the new economy". 
Nevertheless, there are clearly two very different business models 
engaged in fierce competition, with significant vested interests on both 
sides. It would seem that in jurisdictions where unionized labor is 
relatively weak, such as the United States, the army of app-enabled 
activists that tech companies can call upon appear to have the upper 
hand. In more heavily unionized countries, such as France, Italy or 
South Korea, the shared economy faces choppier waters.

Looking towards the future, however, if the trend towards the ubiquity 
of smartphones and the resultant "apptivism" continues, it may be 
difficult for public representatives in these countries to withstand the 
clamor for a relaxation in regulations. The outward appearance of being 
a "grassroots" movement and the amateur nature of many of the shared 
economy's participants gives its campaigns an "authenticity" (whether 
manufactured or genuine) that allows it easily to paint its opponents as 
Luddites representing sinister "vested interests". The tech companies 
that sit at the center of this "new economy" are able to position 
themselves as being on the side of the consumer, despite the fact that 
many of the regulations that they seek to circumvent were put in place 
to protect consumers in the first place. And behind the scenes, they are 
able to mobilize tried-and-tested lobbying and advertising tactics that 
are designed to sway public and political opinion in their favor. But 
will they be able to keep consumers safe and if not, what will the 
backlash be?

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