Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"The New Public Accommodations"

The title of this post comes from this intriguing article by Professor Nancy Leong, the abstract of which states:

The rise of the sharing economy raises important new questions about public accommodations law. Some have argued that the sharing economy has the power to reduce or even eliminate discrimination on the basis of race in traditional public accommodations such as housing rental, transportation, and commerce.

Are these optimists correct? Is discrimination a problem in the new economy? If discrimination is not a problem in the new economy, why is the new economy different from the old economy? If discrimination remains a problem in the new economy, what form does such discrimination take? And what legal mechanisms can we use to address it?

In this Article, I argue that the new economy has not solved race discrimination in public accommodations, and, indeed, that it has raised new concerns that civil rights law must evolve to address. Most obviously, the online platforms that form the basis of many sharing economy businesses often make race salient to both parties to a transaction, which facilitates discrimination without the parties ever coming face to face with one another. Such discrimination may be rooted in either conscious or unconscious bias. Available evidence suggests that this relatively traditional form of discrimination affects the sharing economy to the same extent it affects the traditional economy.

Perhaps more troublingly, the sharing economy also facilitates new forms of discrimination by aggregating the experiences of many economy participants over time. Businesses such as Uber and AirBnb allow service providers (drivers; landlords) to rate service users (passengers; renters). Over time, these ratings aggregate the preferences of many service providers, and to the extent that the service providers are consciously or unconsciously biased, members of disfavored racial categories will gradually average lower ratings than their more favored peers. On the basis of this seemingly objective rating, service users who are members of disfavored racial categories may begin to receive worse service, or, eventually, to be denied service altogether.

The Article proceeds in four parts. Part I traces the history of public accommodations law, from its contested early roots to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to its uneasy status today. Part II turns to the new economy. It describes the features of that economy, explains the hopes of some that the new economy offers a solution to racial discrimination in public accommodations, and then offers evidence suggesting that such hopes are unfounded. Part III considers available legal mechanisms to combat discrimination in the sharing economy. While such mechanisms offer considerable promise in many situations, they ultimately fail to address completely the unique way in which discrimination operates in the sharing economy. Part IV, then, calls for new antidiscrimination laws to take account of the unique features of the new economy, and briefly describes the form such laws should take.

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