Back in the day, if you wanted to spend the night in a yurt, you’d have to build your own frame and schlep it across the Mongolion steppe on the back of your pet yak. Not anymore. Thanks to Airbnb – an online service which allows people to lease out their homes directly to vacationers – the lodging of your dreams is only a keystroke away. (That includes yurts. A quick search on the Airbnb website yields, astonishingly, at least 19 yurt rentals, everywhere from the Czech Republic to White Salmon, Washington.)
Airbnb is one of a host of new peer-to-peer services which uses the Internet to connect people on a quest for goods and services directly with those who can provide them. Another like-minded startup is Uber, an on-demand ride-sharing service which allows people to bypass cab companies in the same way that Airbnb allows them to bypass hotels.
But as these enterprises rise steadily in popularity, they’ve come under increased scrutiny from lawmakers seeing to bring them in line with existing regulations. In the state of New York, for example, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently subpoenaed Airbnb for information on 15,000 hosts, citing the need to protect citizens from illegal hotel operations.
But have no fear, Airbnb enthusiasts: as Harvard historian Nancy Koehn explains, the drive to regulate novel enterprises will not necessarily be the death of the so-called “sharing economy.” In fact, it’s a time-honored tradition.
“Business has been fighting big government regulation since we were taking wine moving on big sailing ships from Madeira hundreds of years ago,” she explains.
When it was first founded, Standard Oil faced similar pushback from government. So, too, did a small, online bookselling business you may now be quite familiar with: Amazon.
“We thought Amazon was this quaint, money-losing bookseller, and now it’s still working through these regulatory issues and it’s a big, big player,” Koehn says.
Hear more from Harvard historian Nancy Koehn on the tug-of-war between tech startups like Airbnb and the regulatory arm of the government below.