June 2010, a start-up company in the Bay Area launched a new service to match riders with taxi cabs via a smartphone app. Today, just five years later, Uber operates in over 58 countries and 300 cities. Venture capitalists as well as investors such as Goldman Sachs, Google and the Chinese company Baidu have all poured in capital, with the company currently valued at $41 billion dollars. And even as it encounters violent protests in Paris and legal crackdowns elsewhere, Uber seems poised for still more growth. Some estimate that the company will generate revenues of $10 billion by the end of 2015.
This is the rapidly expanding world of the so-called sharing economy, in which digital platforms match individual buyers and sellers of goods and services. Uber matches riders with drivers. Task Rabbit matches workers with small jobs. Airbnb matches travelers with rooms rented by private hosts. PricewaterhouseCoopers projects that this form of collaborative consumption will be a $335 billion industry by 2025.
Like many things in the digital era, the sharing economy is quick to cross borders. It also raises many questions, forboth the companies as well as their host countries: What does it take to run these services abroad? Are they good or bad for national economies? Can their positive effects be increased while their negative ones minimized? How should policy anticipate or adapt to their growth?