Salon Writer Not a Fan of Sharing Economy Start-up or ‘Transnational Neocolonialist Libertarian Arrogance’

Over at Salon, Andrew Leonard has written an article headlined “Libertarians’ anti-government crusade: Now there’s an app for that,” in which he criticizes MonkeyParking, a start-up that enables users to auction off information about parking spaces. MonkeyParking recently received a cease and desist demand from San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, stating that it is in violation of a provision in San Francisco’s Police Code that “specifically prohibits individuals and companies from buying, selling or leasing public on‐street parking.”

According to Leonard, MonkeyParking and another app that offers to pay car owners to occupy parking spaces “is an example of how the ‘sharing economy’ can be totally bullshit.”

He contrasts MonkeyParking with Forage Oakland, which allows residents to “share” produce from local fruit trees such as figs and lemons.

Forage Oakland sounds great, and a libertarian would be the last person to object to residents setting up a way to give away produce for free. Indeed, last month it was reported that lawmakers and regulators in 33 American cities have restrictions or are considering implementing restrictions that hamper those hoping to hand out food to homeless people.

Leonard argues that Forage Oakland is different from MoneyParking because

Monkey Parking’s [sic] solution intended to generate profit off of a public good by rewarding those who are able to pay — and shutting out the less affluent. That’s outrageous and not something any civilized society should tolerate.

He doesn’t elaborate on what measures a “civilized society” should take in order to prevent MonkeyParking from operating, especially given the fact that the technology being used by MonkeyParking isn’t going anywhere soon and that, according to Pew, the number of Americans who own smartphones has increased over the last few years.

He goes on to criticize MonkeyParking’s “obvious self interest”:

The entitlement and obvious self-interest that led MonkeyParking to decide it could solve a San Francisco municipal problem with a blatantly illegal business model is shared by many “disruptive” entrepreneurs—often cloaked under the cover of libertarian ideology.

It’s a shame that he doesn’t appreciate that the price system is extremely efficient at communicating information to producers and customers and that the regulatory environment that is affecting MonkeyParking is only the latest example of regulators and lawmakers not being able to keep up with changes in technology.

The most worrying part of Leonard’s article is when he lambasts MonkeyParking CEO Paolo Dobrowolny for displaying “classic transnational neocolonialist libertarian arrogance.” What did Dobrowolny do to incite Leonard? He pointed out that MonkeyParking is not auctioning parking spaces, but rather is auctioning information about parking spaces. According to Ars Technica, MonkeyParking is claiming that its users have a First Amendment right to express and sell information about parking spaces.

It’s this talk of an Italian company claiming First Amendment protection while operating in the United States that prompted Leonard to use the nonsensical phrase “transnational neocolonialist libertarian”:

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the chutzpah at work here. Monkey Parking [sic] is an Italian start-up based in Rome. Dobrowolny is claiming the right to operate as he pleases in a foreign municipality and even dares to claim that his business model is constitutionally protected free speech!

This is a frightening example of national protectionism, but it also highlights an important issue, namely that “sharing economy” companies such as Uber, Airbnb, and MonkeyParking simply provide information. Uber and Airbnb make it easier for users to do something very familiar (catch a ride, let a stranger crash in your house). Unsurprisingly, investors believe that these companies will grow and be profitable.

If Leonard is so concerned about the profit motive, he might want to consider helping start an app to rival MonkeyParking that gives away information about parking spaces for free. It is worth remembering that Herrera’s cease and desist demand cited a provision of the San Francisco’s Police Code that prohibits the “buying, selling or leasing public on‐street parking,” not the buying, selling or leasing of information relating to public on‐street parking.                                            

In the coming years it is likely that we will see an increasing number of “sharing economy” companies operating in the United States. This should be welcomed, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if amid the rise of the sharing economy we see more objections to the profit motive as well as the occasional complaint about foreign companies trying to take advantage of constitutional protections.