From the Digital to the Physical: Federal Limitations on Regulating Online Marketplaces with Abbey Stemler

Edelman, Benjamin, and Abbey Stemler. “From the Digital to the Physical: Federal Limitations on Regulating Online Marketplaces.” Harvard Journal on Legislation (forthcoming).


Online marketplaces have transformed how we shop, travel, and interact with the world. Yet, their unique innovations also present a panoply of challenges for communities and states. Surprisingly, federal laws are chief among those challenges despite the fact that online marketplaces facilitate transactions traditionally regulated at the local level. In this paper, we survey the federal laws that frame the situation, especially §230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a 1996 law largely meant to protect online platforms from defamation lawsuits. The CDA has been stretched beyond recognition to prevent all manner of prudent regulation. We offer specific suggestions to correct this misinterpretation to assure that state and local governments can appropriately respond to the digital activities that impact physical realities.

Informal introduction:

Perhaps the most beloved twenty-six words in tech law, §230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 has been heralded as a “masterpiece” and the “law that gave us the modern Internet.” It was originally designed to protect online companies from defamation claims for third-party speech (think message boards and AOL chat rooms), but over the years §230 has been used to protect online firms from all kinds of regulation—including civil rights and consumer protection laws. As a result, it is now the first line of defense for online marketplaces seeking to avoid state and local regulation.

In our new working paper, Abbey Stemler and I challenge existing interpretations of §230 and highlight how it and other federal laws interfere with state and local government’s ability to regulate online marketplaces—particularly those that dramatically shape our physical realties, such as Uber and Airbnb. §230 is sacred to many, but as Congress considers revising §230 and Courts continually reassess its interpretation, we hope our paper will encourage a richer discussion about the duties of online marketplaces.

The Market Design and Policy of Online Review Platforms

Edelman, Benjamin. “The Market Design and Policy of Online Review Platforms.” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 33, no. 4 (Winter 2017): 635-649.

I present the institutions and incentives of online reviews, including attracting initial reviews, assuring truthful reviews of genuine experiences, and avoiding inflated or deceptive reviews. I also explore the competition and consumer protection concerns associated with reviews.

Uber Can’t Be Fixed — It’s Time for Regulators to Shut It Down

Edelman, Benjamin G. “Uber Can’t Be Fixed — It’s Time for Regulators to Shut It Down.” Harvard Business Review (digital) (June 21, 2017). (Translations: Japanese, Russian.)

From many passengers’ perspective, Uber is a godsend — lower fares than taxis, clean vehicles, courteous drivers, easy electronic payments. Yet the company’s mounting scandals reveal something seriously amiss, culminating in last week’s stern report from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Some people attribute the company’s missteps to the personal failings of founder-CEO Travis Kalanick. These have certainly contributed to the company’s problems, and his resignation is probably appropriate. Kalanick and other top executives signal by example what is and is not acceptable behavior, and they are clearly responsible for the company’s ethically and legally questionable decisions and practices.

But I suggest that the problem at Uber goes beyond a culture created by toxic leadership. The company’s cultural dysfunction, it seems to me, stems from the very nature of the company’s competitive advantage: Uber’s business model is predicated on lawbreaking. And having grown through intentional illegality, Uber can’t easily pivot toward following the rules.

Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy: Evidence from a Field Experiment

Edelman, Benjamin, Michael Luca, and Daniel Svirsky. “Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy: Evidence from a Field Experiment.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 9, no. 2 (April 2017): 1-22.

In an experiment on Airbnb, we find that applications from guests with distinctively African-American names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively White names. Discrimination occurs among landlords of all sizes, including small landlords sharing the property and larger landlords with multiple properties. It is most pronounced among hosts who have never had an African-American guest, suggesting only a subset of hosts discriminate. While rental markets have achieved significant reductions in discrimination in recent decades, our results suggest that Airbnb’s current design choices facilitate discrimination and raise the possibility of erasing some of these civil rights gains.

Design of Search Engine Services: Channel Interdependence in Search Engine Results

Edelman, Benjamin, and Zhenyu Lai. “Design of Search Engine Services: Channel Interdependence in Search Engine Results.” Journal of Marketing Research (JMR) 53, no. 6 (December 2016): 881-900. (First posted April 2013.)

The authors examine prominent placement of search engines’ own services and effects on users’ choices. Evaluating a natural experiment in which different results were shown to users who performed similar searches, they find that Google’s prominent placement of its Flight Search service increased the clicks on paid advertising listings by more than half while decreasing the clicks on organic search listings by about the same quantity. This effect appears to result from interactions between the design of search results and users’ decisions about where and how to focus their attention: users who decide what to click based on listings’ relevance became more likely to select paid listings, while users who are influenced by listings’ visual presentation and page position became more likely to click on Google’s own Flight Search listing. The authors consider implications of these findings for competition policy and for online marketing strategies.

Assessing Airbnb’s Prospects in its San Francisco Litigation with Nancy Leong

Last week the Internet buzzed with news of Airbnb’s lawsuit against San Francisco. Dissatisfied with a new ordinance updating and enforcing 2014 regulations of short-term rentals, Airbnb filed suit against the city, arguing that the new ordinance violated both federal law and the federal constitution.

In today’s piece, Nancy Leong and I assess Airbnb’s arguments in its San Francisco complaint — finding some validity but, on the whole, considerable weakness.

Assessing Airbnb’s Prospects in its San Francisco Litigation – Yale Journal of Regulation – Notice & Comment

Spontaneous Deregulation: How to Compete with Platforms That Ignore the Rules

Edelman, Benjamin, and Damien Geradin. “Spontaneous Deregulation: How to Compete with Platforms That Ignore the Rules.” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 4 (April 2016): 80-87.

Many successful platform businesses–think Airbnb, Uber, and YouTube–ignore laws and regulations that appear to preclude their approach. The rule-flouting phenomenon is something we call “spontaneous private deregulation,” and it is not new. Benign or otherwise, spontaneous deregulation is happening increasingly rapidly and in ever more industries. This article surveys incumbents’ vulnerabilities and identifies possible responses.

When Your Competitors Ignore the Law

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

To Groupon or Not to Groupon: The Profitability of Deep Discounts

Edelman, Benjamin, Sonia Jaffe, and Scott Duke Kominers. “To Groupon or Not to Groupon: The Profitability of Deep Discounts.” Marketing Letters 27, no. 1 (March 2016): 39-53. (First circulated in June 2011. Featured in Working Knowledge: Is Groupon Good for Retailers? Excerpted in HBR Blogs: To Groupon or Not To Groupon: New Research on Voucher Profitability.)

We examine the profitability and implications of online discount vouchers, a relatively new marketing tool that offers consumers large discounts when they prepay for participating firms’ goods and services. Within a model of repeat experience good purchase, we examine two mechanisms by which a discount voucher service can benefit affiliated firms: price discrimination and advertising. For vouchers to provide successful price discrimination, the valuations of consumers who have access to vouchers must generally be lower than those of consumers who do not have access to vouchers. Offering vouchers tends to be more profitable for firms which are patient or relatively unknown, and for firms with low marginal costs. Extensions to our model accommodate the possibilities of multiple voucher purchases and firm price re-optimization. Despite the potential benefits of online discount vouchers to certain firms in certain circumstances, our analysis reveals the narrow conditions in which vouchers are likely to increase firm profits.