The Straits Times says

Case for sharing not open and shut

Regulatory uncertainty tends to shadow the "sharing economy", built on the sharing of ordinary people's resources, because judging its benefits and impact is never straightforward. Depending on one's perspective, there are as many reasons to be open to its enabling technology as there are to shut some parts of it. Hence, it came as no surprise when the Urban Redevelopment Authority met divided views during a public consultation on short-term rentals which are taking off globally on the wings of apps like Airbnb. Taking a laissez- faire approach might lead to violation of the "privacy and sanctity" home owners expect in residential areas, as URA put it, while curbing the growth of technology-driven changes would go against the spirit of the knowledge economy and "smart nation" initiative.

Certainly, one cannot ignore the loss of some peace and security as a result of a constantly shifting pool of tenants. Such hustle and bustle might be par for the course in city areas but would be jarring in the suburbs where a quieter environment is desired for the young and old in particular. Furthermore, the greater wear and tear of common facilities will have to be borne by all residents in, say, a condominium, while rental incomes go to fewer hands. When technology is viewed as a private good, such issues can indeed prove vexing.

If one sees the sharing economy in a different light, much of the tension can be defused. When it distinguishes itself from everyday commerce by being "fairer, lower-carbon, and more transparent, participatory, and socially connected", as Boston College professor Juliet Schor noted, there would be justification for regulatory support or tolerance, at the very least. Operating at the cottage-industry level as homely bed-and-breakfast offerings, this aspect of the access economy is valued for offering a sociable and agreeable alternative to hotel accommodation. When a live-in owner takes responsibility for visitors and no objections are raised by neighbours, for example, there is every reason to apply a light regulatory touch.

In other situations, sharing might invoke more rules, as would be the case when social norms have not developed sufficiently to ensure responsible conduct or safety considerations are a concern. There is also cause for intervention when moneyed operators appropriate social networks to offer commercial services that smack of "labour exploitation, race to the bottom dynamics, perverse eco-impacts, (and) unequal access for low-income and minority communities", in the words of Prof Schor. However, to the extent that sharing platforms allow ordinary people to monetise under-utilised assets and spur individual entrepreneurship, it would be unwise to hinder what Time magazine regarded as one of "10 ideas that will change the world".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2016, with the headline 'Case for sharing not open and shut'. Print Edition | Subscribe