Regulating ride-sharing in the peer economy

Our new paper is now available: Witt, Alice, Suzor, Nicolas P., & Wikstrom, Patrik (2015) Regulating ride-sharing in the peer economy. Communication Research & Practice. 1(2), pp 1-16

The rise of the peer economy poses complex new regulatory challenges for policy-makers. The peer economy, typified by services like Uber and AirBnB, promises substantial productivity gains through the more efficient use of existing resources and a marked reduction in regulatory overheads. These services are rapidly disrupting existing established markets, but the regulatory trade-offs they present are difficult to evaluate. In this paper, we examine the peer economy through the context of ride-sharing and the ongoing struggle over regulatory legitimacy between the taxi industry and new entrants Uber and Lyft. We first sketch the outlines of ride-sharing as a complex regulatory problem, showing how questions of efficiency are necessarily bound up in questions about levels of service, controls over pricing, and different approaches to setting, upholding, and enforcing standards. We outline the need for data-driven policy to understand the way that algorithmic systems work and what effects these might have in the medium to long term on measures of service quality, safety, labour relations, and equality. Finally, we discuss how the competition for legitimacy is not primarily being fought on utilitarian grounds, but is instead carried out within the context of a heated ideological battle between different conceptions of the role of the state and private firms as regulators. We ultimately argue that the key to understanding these regulatory challenges is to develop better conceptual models of the governance of complex systems by private actors and the available methods the state has of influencing their actions. These struggles are not, as is often thought, struggles between regulated and unregulated systems. The key to understanding these regulatory challenges is to better understand the important regulatory work carried out by powerful, centralised private firms – both the incumbents of existing markets and the disruptive network operators in the peer-economy.