Lending out tools through Peerby, renting out your home through Airbnb, lending out your scooter through Felyx – all these are examples of the sharing economy. We share our possessions so that we can produce less, which is good for the environment – and for your pocket. But the sharing economy also raises a lot of questions about rights, obligations and liability. UG legal expert Rosalie Koolhoven aims to shed light on these aspects.
Text: Eelco Salverda, Communication UG, photos: Elmer Spaargaren
If you are expecting an activist plea about misdoings and complaints from Rosalie Koolhoven, you will be disappointed. She is not a solicitor who speaks in defence of victims – even though consumer affairs television programmes such as Kassa and Radar frequently contact her. She is rather an academic, a legal expert who researches the rules. She also wants to find out if it is possible for the sharing and circular economies to be truly sustainable.
Koolhoven specializes in IT and private law and sustainability. It was 2013 when she decided to look into the rules regarding the sharing economy, as one of the first in the Netherlands. Two years later, the UN presented the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in an effort to make the world more sustainable. One of those goals is to ensure sustainable production and consumption patterns, for example by implementing the sharing economy: sharing the use of objects and offering this as a service on the internet, among others. ‘I thought that if I want to contribute to society from my field of expertise, I could take a look at the rules surrounding new forms of consumption and services,’ Koolhoven says.
And so she did. She started her exploration by taking part in the sharing economy as a participant. ‘I tried everything: I went couchsurfing when I had to go to a congress, I cooked food for others through Thuisafgehaald, I lent things out through Peerby. To form an opinion, I believe I should first experience the sharing economy myself. ‘I had one bad review, that my portion was too small,’ she says with a smile. If being part of the sharing economy taught Koolhoven one thing it is that it can be tricky sometimes to decide what the rules are.
Sharing is not a new phenomenon. We have always shared things. But the large scale at which it is happening at the moment is new, as are the anonymity, the technology behind it and the big commercial players involved, such as Airbnb and Uber. These internet platforms offer an insight into the supply and demand for such services. The added value of these platforms is that they lower the barrier that was raised by anonymity. They do this by helping users build a reputation and collecting reviews about the services and users of the platform. They want people to have faith. However, this also complicates matters: who exactly is the supplier, consumer or professional you are dealing with, and who needs to fulfil which obligations?
Many laws and regulations existed before intermediary platforms like Airbnb and Uber were created. Koolhoven is fascinated by this fact. ‘I always wonder whether we should hold on to our existing legal system, or that it could be improved taking technology into account. You could say – like some legal experts do – that the work of these online intermediaries is so new that our current rules do not cover them. However, you could also say that there are always rules in place that apply, so why not in this case?’
This shows the complexity of the matter, particularly because internet platforms play a huge role but claim to stand on the sidelines. ‘They say they only have a mediating role: “we are not the rental company, we are not the taxi company”. Their responsibilities are fairly unclear, but recently there have been a few court decisions and some articles have been published regarding this issue.’ Technically speaking, they are not part of the sharing economy, Koolhoven explains: ‘I prefer to call their activities the matching economy, because the sharing economy brings together renters and ‘rentees’, borrowers and ‘borrowees’ through a matching economy platform. However, these platforms do not own the items being shared.’ In answer to the question if people should participate in the sharing economy, she says: ‘It’s a valid question to wonder how much you want to put up with in order to participate, but if you disagree with the rules, you have a choice not to participate.’
Wrongdoings and incidents are not novel, Koolhoven continues. A lent drill turns out to be broken upon return, the taxi driver charges too much, a rented room is dirty – Which is then not the fault of the platforms. So in a way people have become more accepting of small wrongdoings, she says. ‘Sociological research conducted by my colleagues shows that people tend to settle for less quality if the price is lower. Besides, it also costs time and money to make sure the law is enforced. People are more inclined to just leave it at that.’ However, Koolhoven does not see this topic as a waste of time because of that. ‘It is not about how much money is involved; one wrongdoing is still injustice’.
It is not so much the wrongdoings that Koolhoven is interested in; she would much rather look ahead. ‘How can the sharing economy be used for the greater good? If you live in social housing you are not allowed to rent out the property, but for this part of the population in particular this rent could be a much welcomed financial bonus. Such activities would truly fit in with the SDGs, and they could be a way to fight unreported employment or subsidy fraud. The implicit promise that the sharing economy is inclusive, that anyone can participate, is an illusion. Because in order to participate you have to own things: a property, a car. Too few people are able to pay what’s on offer or have something to offer.’
In order to better inform people, Koolhoven set up the site Prosumeter. Here you can find the answers to questions regarding the rights and obligations in the sharing economy. Her commitment also shows from her other activities: She regularly contributes to activities organized by the UG Pre-University Academy. ‘I believe that I should use my knowledge not just for academic publications but that I should also pass it on to society. We, academics and legal experts, have a lot of knowledge and skills to offer but also our academic attitude: we‘re open and curious and can reason and listen well. We can show people how to deal with differences of opinion.’
The booklet Superdilemma’s, written for primary school children by Koolhoven and philosopher Ariska Bonnema, lies on the table in her office. The booklet throws light on two different sides of twenty-five legal conundrums, for example about stealing virtual amulets in an online game, or about the consequences of signing a contract before entering a talent show on TV. ‘I see many interesting and fun court cases happening, that we as legal experts relish. Moreover, children love conundrums. My son frequently asks me if I would rather be this or that. And finally: schools have to offer civic education but they don’t always know how to approach this subject. A plan was forming: Koolhoven came up with a format, showed it to colleagues, looked for illustrators and managed to secure funding. The end of the story was that a mailshot was sent out to 6300 primary schools in the Netherlands. Within a week we received numerous positive reactions,’ Koolhoven says pleased.
Superdilemma’s – it’s an ambiguous title. It refers to big dilemmas but ‘super’ could also mean ‘wonderful’. Is this intentional? ‘Dilemmas are a good conversation starter, they make you think and pull you out of your bubble. If you handle them well, they will lead you to new insights.’ She does not have a favourite dilemma herself. ‘They’re all difficult, it’s really hard to choose a stance. But you don’t have to, It’s the discussion that matters.’
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