Germany plans to create a clearer legal framework for sharing economy web businesses like taxi firm Uber and flat rental site Airbnb, whose growth has been stifled by the country’s notorious bureaucracy and regulations.
Lawmakers from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition of conservatives and center-left Social Democrats have drafted a joint motion calling on the government to adapt current rules to the digital age.
One in two Germans has already used sharing services in one form or another, according to a survey by management consultancy PwC. But the government has been slow to respond and companies still operate in a legal grey area, with accommodation rentals often falling foul of local housing laws and regulations.
Handelsblatt has seen the draft paper which is due to be finalized by lawmakers in party meetings next week.
“We face the challenge of reducing legal uncertainties for all involved as much as possible and to arrive at common views on what rules should apply to the sharing economy,” said the paper.
There’s clearly unequal treatment between the industries. While Uber isn’t allowed to do anything, Airbnb for a long time was permitted to do almost everything. Thomas Jarzombek, Conservative lawmaker
Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel last May submitted proposals for adjusting regulations to the digital age and asked associations, companies and the public to respond. The ministry is now in the process of fleshing out its proposals.
The likes of Airbnb and Uber have faced opposition from authorities and industry groups around the world, including in Germany. Cities such as Berlin have introduced rules banning the regular short-term letting of rooms without official permission. Meanwhile, the German hotel industry federation has said Airbnb represents a “shadow economy” rather than a “sharing economy.”
The German taxi lobby took legal action to shut down the Uber-Pop service shortly after it was launched. Since then, private drivers without a passenger transportation license have not been allowed to drive for Uber. Related services UberX and Uber-Black in Munich, which provides luxury sedans or SUVs from registered rental car companies, as well as Uber-Taxi in Berlin, are growing more slowly than predicted.
Uber has pulled out of Hamburg, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf saying government agencies created hurdles.
Germany’s ruling parties want concrete new rules on sharing platforms to be introduced before the end of the current parliamentary term in September.
The lawmakers listed 21 points where they see a need for action. One problem that Uber in particular encountered was that it’s unclear which laws apply to the newcomers.
Uber has consistently argued that it only provides the platform to find a taxi — not the actual driving service.
The paper said that in some cases it would make sense to reduce or scrap an existing regulation. In other cases it would be better to apply existing rules to the new firms.
“There’s clearly unequal treatment between the industries,” said lawmaker Thomas Jarzombek, a digital policy specialist for the conservatives. “While Uber isn’t allowed to do anything, Airbnb for a long time was permitted to do almost everything.”
The paper also stresses the need to protect users. Consumer rights groups keep on complaining that private homes rented out via Airbnb don’t have to adhere to the same tough fire regulations as their commercial competitors, for example.
It says liability issues also need to be clarified, meaning “in what cases consumers, in what cases service providers and in what cases platform operators are liable for laws being broken.”
At present, the lack of clear laws on this means that it’s up to courts to decide who is liable when the service provider gives false information about the condition of an apartment being rented out, for example. The law also needs to establish when a service provider is no longer private but commercial.
But the parties also want to give firms a degree of freedom to experiment with new services.
“We need clauses for experimentation, or some new business models will never make headway in Germany,” said Mr. Jarzombek.
Dana Heide is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin, focusing on energy policies, small and medium-sized companies and innovation. To contact the author: [email protected]