Hong Kong to open doors for more lawful sharing economy businesses ‘such as GoGoVan’
Consider ‘sandbox’ approach for sharing economy businesses, suggests lawmaker
The city’s top innovation and technology official has now struck a more welcoming tone on online and sharing economy businesses, saying that he will explore removing regulatory barriers and update laws to help them operate.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, innovation and technology minister Nicholas Yang Wei-hsiung said the government was “very much for the sharing economy” and held up GoGoVan, a goods van-hailing service, as a positive example.
“This is an Uber-like company that uses a similar business model without violating any law,” he said.
Yang’s comments came after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor explicitly endorsed the sharing economy in her policy address on Wednesday. Acknowledging that the sharing economy had fuelled the rise of new economic activities in China and elsewhere, she said her administration would remove red tape to “foster the development of a new economy” and ditch “outdated provisions that impede the development of innovation and technology”.
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Ride-hailing service Uber, home-sharing operator Airbnb and bike-sharing service Gobee.bike have posed a headache for the government, which has to respond to growing consumer demand for technology-driven services, while ensuring that these businesses do not pose a risk to the public and comply with existing laws. Hong Kong rentals offered through Airbnb for instance, are not governed by laws that require hotels and guest houses to meet building and fire safety standards.
Yang and his colleagues from the Innovation and Technology Bureau had previously taken flak from members of the public, after saying in June that Uber had broken the law deliberately “by allowing its drivers to pick up guests illegally”. A Hong Kong court found five Uber drivers guilty of driving without a permit or third-party insurance in March this year. Uber responded by calling on the government to legalise and regulate ride-sharing services. The law currently restricts the number of permits given out to private car hire services, and imposes other strict criteria on them.
On Thursday, Yang did not name names but said that the public should not look to just one or two companies as the only examples of the sharing economy.
“Let’s not limit ourself to one model, the sharing economy is much wider than that,” he said. But even as he spoke of the efforts to remove red tape, he stressed that sharing economy businesses must operate within the law, regardless of the benefit they bring to consumers.
Still, Yang’s comments were viewed positively by Uber. A spokeswoman said: “It is enlightening to learn that the government … recognises the sharing economy as a new economic activity. We look forward to working closely with the government.”
Information technology sector lawmaker Charles Mok welcomed the government’s efforts but claimed that there were other reasons, including protecting vested business interests, behind the government’s reluctance to legalise Uber and Airbnb.
“Let’s find a way to update our laws and find something that really works for Hong Kong, but not succumb to any kind of demands from vested interests,” he said.
Mok suggested that the government consider a “sandbox” approach for sharing economy technology, similar to recent efforts to grow the fintech sector. This would allow sharing economy businesses to first operate on a pilot basis without adhering to traditional supervisory requirements. They could then work out the operational and legal issues before expanding their service to the rest of Hong Kong.