Consumer safety is gig economy’s biggest problem

Chris Horn: Lack of meaningful regulation online allows tech giants to dominate

 

Mark Paul wrote a perceptive assessment in an opinion piece on January 24th last. The business affairs correspondent of this newspaper observed the tension emerging between the new ways of organising our lives in the sharing “gig” environment of the self-employed, and the inertia of new regulation appropriate to this new economy. While the economy has been ‘Uberised’, the rules that regulate it have not, he noted.

The regulatory environment that surrounds businesses in the on-demand economy is often based upon principles and assumptions that no longer apply. Online grocery selection and delivery, summoning taxis, reserving B&Bs and holiday apartments, and other services can all be organised by various apps on your smart device. But while the online gig economy has established an efficient economic model, Paul asserts “we are stuck with analogue laws in a digital age”.

In my view, the critical vulnerability of the gig economy is consumer safety. This has two complementary consequences. The app companies that facilitate shared assets – whether it be cars for temporary hire, houses for short-term lets, or freelancers for transient service – are usually reluctant to assume responsibility for any poor service by the self-employed who fulfil their service. Instead, their default tactic is to enable consumers to publicly rank temporary staff – for example, drivers, property landlords or food delivery agents – by the quality of service received.

Thus, poorly behaved gig economy workers are filtered out of the system. However, this may be of little reassurance to a consumer who has been traumatised by a car crash, a trashed apartment, compromised food or even physical assault by an unvetted, self-employed agent.

Nevertheless, matching consumers with the self-employed is a two-way street. When a gig economy worker does provide a good service, there is nothing to prevent a consumer building a direct relationship as a result. The app which brought the consumer and agent together becomes superfluous, and the consumer can thereafter directly contact the same agent again to re-use the service.

Ironically, gig economy apps are vulnerable to regulatory control when their service is dangerous, and to obsolescence when their service is excellent.

But the Airbnbs, Ubers, Deliveroos and TaskRabbits of this world are minnows compared with the five internet giants – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. It is possible to just stop using the gig economy apps once they have made a great introduction for you, but is it possible to just stop using the services of the internet giants?

Kashmir Hill decided to find out, and to write about her experience. She is a deputy editor of the design, technology and science website, Gizmodo. Recently she voluntarily stopped using each of the five giants for a week in turn, and then,on the sixth week, stopped using all five together.

To ensure she had no access, she enlisted the help of a technology friend who completely blocked her use of particular websites and services using a virtual private network. She has documented her experiences of “digital veganism” in a series of articles on gizmodo.com, including the sixth and final week.

She concluded that the five companies have become almost unavoidable because together “they control internet infrastructure, online commerce and information flows. Many of them specialise in tracking you around the web, whether you use their products or not.

“These companies started out selling books, offering search results, or showcasing college hotties, but they have expanded enormously and now touch almost every online interaction. These companies look a lot like modern monopolies.”

Shoshana Zuboff, a tenured professor at the Harvard Business School, has recently published a lengthy tome on how the internet giants have indeed become modern monopolies, and the consequential implications for societies worldwide. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism forcefully documents that a rogue manipulation of capitalisation has resulted from the deliberate and premeditated behaviour of the internet giants, and in particular of Google. She observes that regulatory authorities and parliaments have been slow to respond, while the companies have both procrastinated and actively funded considerable opposition to any regulation.

Meanwhile, the collection of personal and private data has accelerated. Society as a result can now be nudged, manipulated and controlled towards specific commercial behaviours and political responses.

The final report of a Westminster select committee’s 18-month long investigation into Facebook was published earlier this week. It states unambiguously that Facebook deliberately broke UK competition and privacy laws. The committee chairman Damian Collins asserts that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg “continually fails to show the levels of leadership and personal responsibility that should be expected from someone who sits at the top of one of the world’s biggest companies”.

Hildegarde Naughton, chairwoman of our Oireachtas communications committee, responded to the Westminster report by observing that there is “absolutely no doubt that social media platforms need to be regulated”.

Many thousands of people are employed by the internet giants in Ireland. I wonder whether they are beginning to have deep concerns about the ethics and morals of their employers. I wonder whether societal damage caused by their employers is being hotly debated.

I also wonder whether they may face questions later in their career about their professional response to rogue corporate behaviour by their employers.

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