THE TAKING ECONOMY: UBER, INFORMATION, AND POWER – Columbia Law Review

Sharing economy firms such as Uber and Airbnb facilitate trusted transactions between strangers on digital platforms. This creates economic and other value but raises 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 Essay, coauthored by a law professor and a technology ethnographer who studies work, labor, and technology, furnishes such a critique and proposes a meaningful response through updates to consumer protection law.Commercial firms have long used what they know about consumers to shape their behavior and maximize profits. Sitting between consumers and providers of services, however, sharing economy firms have a unique capacity to monitor and nudge all participants—including people whose livelihoods may depend on the platform. These firms reveal their monitoring activities only selectively. However, preliminary evidence suggests that sharing economy firms such as Uber may already be going too far, leveraging their access to information about users and their control over the user experience to mislead, coerce, or otherwise disadvantage sharing economy participants.This Essay argues that consumer protection law, with its longtime emphasis on restraining asymmetries of information and power, is well positioned to address this underexamined aspect of the sharing economy. Yet, the regulatory response to date seems outdated and superficial.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) limit the incentives for sharing economy firms to abuse their position.

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