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March 28, 2016


Last fall I flagged the problem of transportation network companies (Uber and kin) claiming a cost advantage by ignoring legal requirements they considered ill-advised or inconvenient. But the problem stretches well beyond TNCs. Consider Airbnb declining to enforce (or, often, even tell hosts about) the insurance, permitting, tax, zoning, and other requirements they must satisfy in order to operate lawfully. Or Zenefits using selling insurance via staff not trained or certified to do so (and, infamously, helping some staff circumvent state-mandated training requirements). Or Theranos offering a novel form of blood tests without required certification, yielding results that federal regulators found "deficient" and worse. The applicable requirements may be clear -- get commercial insurance before driving commercially; be zoned for commercial activities if you want to rent out a room; be trained and licensed to sell insurance if you intend to do so. Yet a growing crop of startups decline to do so, finding it faster and more expedient to seek forgiveness rather than permission. And the approach spreads through competition: once one firm in a sector embraces this method, others have to follow lest they be left behind.

A first question is how violations should be sanctioned. I've long thought that penalties could appropriately be severe. Consider the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission's $49 million civil penalty against Uber for its intentional operation in violation of a PUC order. The PUC discussed the purpose of this penalty: "not just to deter Uber, but also [to deter] other entities who may wish to launch ... without Commission approval." Their rationale is compelling: If the legal system requires a permit for Uber's activity, and if we are to retain that requirement, sizable penalties are required to reestablish the expectation that following the law is indeed compulsory. Now suppose every state and municipality were to impose a penalty comparable in size. Despite Uber's wealth, the numbers add up -- 100 such penalties would take $4.9 billion from Uber's investors, a sizable share of Uber's valuation and plausibly more than the company's cash on hand.

Meanwhile, competitors are compelled to respond. For a typical taxi fleet owner or driver, or anyone else trying to compete with a law-breaking entrant, it's little answer to hope that regulators may some day impose penalties. (And indeed there's scant evidence that Pennsylvania's approach will prevail more broadly.) What to do? Damien Geradin and I offer a menu of suggestions in two recent articles:

Spontaneous Deregulation: How to compete with platforms that ignore the rules - Harvard Business Review
Competing with Platforms that Ignore the Law
- HBR Online