Skip to Content

Calling Uber-Like Businesses the ‘Sharing Economy’ Masks Reality

Portuguese taxis protest against UberPortuguese taxis protest against Uber
Taxi drivers block a road around the Lisbon airport during a protest against Uber in Lisbon, Portugal on October 10, 2016.Sara Matos—Anadolu Agency Getty Images

The sharing-isn’t-caring economy. As part of my reporting for my recent story in TIME about Uber’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, a couple of academics gave me a sneak peek at a research paper they jointly published last week on the sharing economy—or as they called it, the “taking economy.”

The authors—Alex Rosenblat, an ethnographer at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York City, and Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s school of law—argued that peer-to-peer middlemen like Uber, Airbnb, and Lyft exercise too much unrestrained control over their marketplaces. These companies can (and do) manipulate and mislead market participants by surreptitiously exploiting “asymmetries of information and power,” in their view. They argue that regulators need get more involved rooting out abuses in the name of consumer protection.

One part of the argument that stuck with me took Uber’s recently canceled cop-dodging Greyball program as its starting point. Rosenblat actually discovered “phantom cars” in the Uber app, à la Greyball, over the course of her investigations as early as two years ago. (Uber vehemently denied it then.) No one is quite sure how prevalent Uber’s ghost fleet is, but there’s reason to believe it’s more common than the company has let on. When Joe Sullivan, Uber’s security chief, banned the Greyballing of law enforcement officers last week, he noted: “Given the way our systems are configured, it will take some time to ensure this prohibition is fully enforced.”

Here’s the rub: How can anyone ensure the company isn’t discriminating against a particular segment of the population when no one can be sure of the data on display? Several researchers I spoke to compared Uber’s Greyball program to Volkswagen’s emissions-cheating software. The only reason regulators discovered that fraud was because a team of researchers at the University of West Virginia had taken it upon themselves to poke around and find discrepancies between what the cars reported and the reality. If Uber can simply Greyball anyone who breaks its terms of service—researchers, regulators, etc.—how can they hold the company accountable for its practices? This seems problematic.

Get Term Sheet, Fortune’s daily deals newsletter

Convertible debt debate. Yesterday, Union Square Ventures managing partner Fred Wilson touched off a debate by weighing in on the use of convertible debt and other loan-like notes in early stage venture capital financing rounds. He’s opposed to this practice, arguing that it obscures valuation and dilution for founders and makes things generally harder to understand for everyone later on. Better simply to do priced equity rounds, he said.

Ryan Lackey, a Y Combinator alum who sold his security startup CryptoSeal to CloudFlare in 2014, disagreed on the matter of SAFE notes, short for “simple agreement for future equity.” “SAFEs are founder friendly,” he posted in a tweet. “This is an investor (@avc) projecting his own economics/desires as the founder’s.”

What do you think? Let me know on Twitter.