Sharing economy firms such as Uber and Airbnb facilitate trusted transactions between strangers on digital platforms. This creates economic and other value and raises a set of concerns around racial bias, safety, and fairness to competitors and workers that legal scholarship has begun to address. Missing from the literature, however, is a fundamental critique of the sharing economy grounded in asymmetries of information and power. This Article, coauthored by a law professor and a technology ethnographer who studies the ride-hailing community, furnishes such a critique and indicates a path toward a meaningful response.
Commercial firms have long used what they know about consumers to shape their behavior and maximize profits. By virtue of sitting between consumers and providers of services, however, sharing economy firms have a unique capacity to monitor and nudge all participants — including people whose livelihood may depend on the platform. Much activity is hidden away from view, but preliminary evidence suggests that sharing economy firms may already be leveraging their access to information about users and their control over the user experience to mislead, coerce, or otherwise disadvantage sharing economy participants.
This Article argues that consumer protection law, with its longtime emphasis of asymmetries of information and power, is relatively well positioned to address this under-examined aspect of the sharing economy. But the regulatory response to date seems outdated and superficial. To be effective, legal interventions must (1) reflect a deeper understanding of the acts and practices of digital platforms and (2) interrupt the incentives of sharing economy firms to abuse their position.