Time to get on board the ‘sharing economy’
App-based services such as Uber and Airbnb are not going away; instead of kowtowing to vested interests, the government should regulate these industries
If you have nothing useful to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. Take, for example, Innovation and Technology Bureau chief Nicholas Yang Wei-hsiung.
Yang went gaga over Uber back in 2015 when the ride-hailing company hit town. Now his bureau has turned on Uber because the government has caved to the taxi cartels. If he had understood its business model, shouldn’t he have known from day one that Uber was set up here precisely to challenge licensing laws in Hong Kong, among other things? Now he has learned the party line. But his policy bureau is not in enforcement. Rather, it’s his job to look into the need to overhaul local regulations in light of the so-called sharing economy and the type of economic activities generated directly between peers, thereby minimising the need for intermediaries. Alas, our government is burying its head in the sand while Yang isn’t providing any leadership.
But let me pause for a second. Uber’s management has been breathtakingly arrogant. I don’t care if it lives or dies in Hong Kong. The type of online platform it provides can be replicated by other local competitors. But the regulatory issues created by “sharing economy” companies such as Uber and Airbnb are not going to go away even if officials succeed in killing Uber in Hong Kong. Our government is doing exactly what the traditional print media industry did – an industry of which I have been a part for my entire professional career – when we ignored social media at our peril a decade ago.
Done right, so-called peer-to-peer services could save people lots of money and time, generate productive economic activities from underused private facilities and properties, and provide jobs and income for unemployed and underemployed people. This online and app-based economy offers tremendous potential benefits for the economy, if only our government will stop trying to protect traditional vested interests. There are, of course, complicated issues in safety, insurance, taxation, licensing and consumer protection that need to be worked out. The downsides of such online services, if left unregulated, are obvious.
But that’s what government regulators are there for – to enable new social and economic opportunities in the public interest, not to crack down on them.
Will the next government do the right thing, or will it continue to be beholden to vested interests, like it has always done?