THE BLOG

The 'Sharing Economy' Needs to Be a Caring Economy

05/06/2016 16:45 | Updated 05 June 2016

Sometimes, the rate of technological change can be dizzying. Just over ten years ago, the first ever video was uploaded to YouTube. Today, the site has 1 billion users, watching 4 billion videos a day, with 300 hours of new content being uploaded every minute. Twitter is even more recent - founded a year later than YouTube, it now sees 6,000 tweets sent every single second.

These developments can be fantastic. Whether you want to take part in a global movement for change, or just watch and rewatch a video of a panda sneezing, the internet can be a wonderful thing.

But there are downsides too. The ability to film something on your smartphone and instantly upload it brings with it questions about privacy and copyright. And, as prominent women like Labour's Jess Phillips have found, the freedom of speech that Twitter champions can quickly turn into vile and unacceptable abuse. For politicians and lawmakers in particular, the challenge is to find a way to allow new technologies to flourish without sacrificing our rights - or just our common decency - at the same time.

This is especially true in what has become known as the 'sharing economy' - online platforms like Uber and AirBnB which allow people to share their services with one another in a peer-to-peer, informal way. Millions of people are taking advantage of this: whether it's to stay in someone else's flat for a weekend break, or to get a lift home at the end of the night.

However, there are problems with these new kinds of businesses as well. As the GMB trade union has pointed out, Uber in particular seems keen to reap all the benefits of being a big multinational corporation with very few of the responsibilities. Uber drivers are classed as "self-employed", and yet they have no say over the prices they can charge nor the terms and conditions of their service. Most people would say that this makes a driver an employee of Uber, with all the rights - like paid holiday and sick leave - that should come with it. Uber's tax arrangements are also decidedly opaque. Your driver might give you a lift from the centre of town back home at the end of the night, and yet your payment will somehow be booked in the Netherlands (where it is subject to much less tax). That is simply not on.

I was really encouraged, therefore, by a new set of guidelines announced by the EU yesterday. They aim to give national governments a steer on how to navigate the choppy waters of the new 'sharing economy' in the most appropriate way. The guidelines make clear that, while new online platforms should be given the space and the encouragement they need to grow and flourish, they must do so on a level playing field with everyone else, and they must abide by their social responsibilities. That means acknowledging when the people providing your service are really employees, and should be treated as such, and it means abiding by the same tax rules as everyone else.

Yesterday's action shows the EU getting these things right: no heavy-handed regulation, but at the same time a fierce defence of workers' rights and social protections that have been hard won in the past and should not be relinquished in the light of new technologies. All eyes now turn to the Tory government back home, who should be abiding by these EU guidelines: I'm calling on them to make sure that our new sharing economy is a caring economy too.

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