Like many others recently, I read Zak Stone's heart-rending essay about his father. Especially as someone who spent a good part of my professional life working on building a marketplace company, it really made me think about trust.
In today's connected world, we put a remarkable amount of trust in companies. Every time we do a search on Google, post pictures on Facebook or send private emails, we enter a compact that we will provide data and information and that it won't be abused or personally identifiable. Now, as we outsource more and more of the physical world, we have an ever greater need for trust because it concerns the day-to-day health and safety of ourselves, our friends and our family.
This is not a legal question. I am not a lawyer. In fact, were I to argue it legally, I think it's a compelling case that Uber, AirBnB and others are marketplaces who should not be primarily held responsible for what the actors in the marketplace do. They facilitate transactions through a well-designed user interface but they do not provide services. Every time you use a marketplace, you are taking a risk, however minor or major you judge that risk to be. As a consumer or provider, that is your decision. Don't like the risks? No problem; don't enter the marketplace.
Perhaps marketplaces need to make it clearer to both consumers and providers that they are indeed "marketplaces", i.e. that they only facilitate transactions and are not responsible for the actors within the marketplace. When we throw around words like "trusted community", "connecting" and "friend", the line is blurred. When your company has become a verb and your brand is associated with the entire experience, it's understandable why people would assume that the provider and the marketplace are one and the same. There's certainly more that can be done on this front. However, all that aside, there's one burning question for me:
When do marketplaces have a moral or societal obligation to guarantee safety? When do they need to protect the actors in the marketplace from the economic consequences of accidents?
Up to a certain point, profit and safety motives are aligned. After all, people aren't terribly likely to continue using a service when they know that there are zero safeguards in place. There is some reasonable expectation of necessary safety - whether it's background checks, expert reviews or a critical response team, most marketplaces self-regulate to create a base level of safety. The real difference comes in downside protection. When something goes horribly wrong, which will invariably happen at scale, there are very real economic consequences. It's impossible to know in advance when something bad will happen but when it does, who's responsible for the $$$? Using these marketplaces is often cheaper precisely because they don't have to deal with much of the overhead that regulated service providers deal with.
If you're not willing to live with the company's definition of safety but still want the convenience and reliability of the service, what choice do you have? There's always the choice to not use the marketplace but if a company wants to appeal to this segment of people, there are concrete product steps that could solve the problem. I don't see how we can have it both ways - demanding both cheaper services and guaranteeing 100% safety at the same time. However, what we can do is to create product lines that span the cost/safety spectrum. What if AirBnB hosts could voluntarily enter into a program that had verified inspections at the same or higher standards than hotels? There would be a cost to the host but they would then be clearly badged as verified listings that could ultimately charge more for potential guests. Similarly, if you don't want to take an UberX, you can take an UberBlack and call a licensed professional driver who has standards and regulations enforced by others.
Ultimately, it's up to the marketplace company whether or not they implement these systems but as users, we always have a choice. Whether or not we want to think about it, using a marketplace is a calculated risk. At the end of the day, we have to be thoughtful about who we choose to trust and how we bestow that trust.