The sharing economy — most notably Airbnb and Uber — grapples with regulation across the world on a daily basis.
One of the biggest hurdles is related to data privacy and protecting that data from the government. This data is desirable for public entities in order to analyze the data and better understand the emerging marketplace.
In a chat from the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, major investors Ron Conway (SV Angel) and Fred Wilson (Union Square Ventures) took a stance that these startups — and the tech community at large — must be more civically minded as they grow ever larger.
Despite that, the investors also found the ongoing regulatory atmosphere to be onerous and misguided. Airbnb and the sharing economy came up in discussion relating to affordable housing and its place in society.
Using Airbnb as an example, Conway said that there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the sharing economy:
The notion that Airbnb is part of the problem is completely false. It’s just a conjured up argument that the opposition to Airbnb and people who don’t understand the sharing economy made up.
Conway also was displeased with government regulating the number of days hosts can rent on Airbnb:
I just think it’s a false ceiling. Why should the government be involved in that?
While Conway was emphatic that governments have no right to private data, Wilson felt that there was a place for these startups to share data that facilitates understanding and civic dialogue:
If they did willingly hand over the data they could resolve a lot of these concerns about Airbnb that are misfounded. Companies can use their data, and by actively sharing their data, to essentially make clear that the fears they have about the service are unfounded. I would encourage companies to be proactive about sharing their data as much as possible.
I understand the issues about revealing specific data about specific customers...but the more a company can disclose the data on an anonymized, aggregated basis, they can use that to make a specific case that they are doing something good. We encourage our portfolio companies to be as public with their data as possible.
The question as to whether this data constitutes a civic duty is most definitely murky. On one hand, there is a clear separation between private companies and public government — a hallmark of the American brand of democracy.
By giving up private data, there's a potentially scary precedent and little control over how that data is used.
On the other hand, this data could help governments regulate smarter and get a greater grasp on the emerging ecosystem. When analysis shows discrimination on P2P marketplaces or residents protest the changes, the importance of analyzing reality to reach a place of deep understanding cannot be underestimated.
The anonymized data could support the sharing economy's positive impact and use transparency as the industry's greatest asset in its fight against critics and governments.
From Internet access to the housing crisis, the topics are wide ranging and indicates two investors' perspectives on how tech should place itself in the world at large. Here's the video featuring the discussion on "why tech should be civically engaged:"
Read more coverage on Airbnb here
NB: Handshake image courtesy Shutterstock.