Published: Sunday September 14, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday September 14, 2014 MYT 2:07:28 PM

Freedom of information

The Internet has made it possible to share cheap hotel bookings, Uber taxis and... political news.

Last year, when I went to San Francisco, I stayed in a stranger’s apartment. It was somebody I had never met before, and he wasn’t a friend of a friend, or even a friend of a friend of a friend.

Yet, due to his help, I got a great apartment in the middle of San Francisco city at half the price of a normal hotel room.

Those of you who travel may guess I’m talking about AirBnB, an accommodation booking website that offers over 800,000 listings in 34,000 cities in 190 countries. That’s at least 100,000 more rooms than the Hilton chain. And they do this with just 600 employees worldwide.

Welcome to the sharing economy, where so much can be done by helping connect willing buyers and sellers. AirBnB allows you to list your spare room for free, and only if you manage to rent it out does it then take a percentage of the profit.

It is another manifestation of the knowledge economy. It’s not what you have or what you own, but how you help a communicator reach out to a recipient.

But some people think it’s disruptive and say: “This is not how things should be done”. I am sure many in the large hotel chains are concerned at how AirBnB may undercut their income, allegedly by “unfair” means.

For example, most people who list on AirBnB are not registered or licensed as hotels. They don’t undergo the mandatory fire safety checks.

And the owners may keep their dead mothers in the store room. You never know. Even worse, they probably don’t pay tax either, so the state has an issue with lost revenue.

In Malaysia, similar arguments were heard again when Uber rolled into town, an app that allows people to turn their private cars into temporary taxis.

The taxi association Gabungan Persatuan dan Syarikat-Syarikat Teksi Semenanjung Malaysia (Gabungan) has called on the Land and Public Transport Department (Spad) to take action. Apparently, Uber is killing off businesses for local taxis.

They point out that the private drivers are unlicensed, their cars haven’t undergone six-monthly Puspakom checks and for all you know they may keep their dead mothers in the boot.

Resistance to Uber has occurred all over the world, with the cities of Brussels, Toronto, Berlin, Seoul and London requesting for a ban to its services in one form or another.

In all cases, there has been an existing taxi service in the city which looks to compete with non-licensed Uber drivers.

It is the oft-told tale of the new economy crashing into the old and threatening to careen it off the information highway. It doesn’t seem to matter that people are breaking laws to do so.

At the moment, people seem okay that their drivers are unlicensed or their hotels are just rooms in somebody’s house, and that must say a lot about what people think of existing regulations.

Instead, they would rather trust the opinions of their peers, shared online and immediately after their taxi ride or hotel stay. The old administrations were not designed to work in an environment where information flows seamlessly, and don’t allow for its benefits.

In fact, all of this boils down to how easy it is to share information on the Internet. In the past, you had to own a newspaper company or some sort of publishing or broadcasting network to distribute news and opinions. As a result, it was easy for governments who wanted to make sure their citizens only got “good” information to control the flow by managing the choke points, like the printing presses or the broadcasting towers.

Now, the Internet amplifies thoughts in such a way that the slightest comment reaches a global audience and is kept for posterity. So a person can write a stupid posting intended to incite those of a particular religion, and a year later find himself sentenced to twelve months jail, as what happened to a Malaysian Facebook user recently.

Clearly this is meant to be a deterrent, to stop others from doing something similar. But I think it will just push underground those who write things that they know is wrong, while producing a chilling effect on others who may not be sure where the border between legal and illegal lies.

Azmi Sharom (disclaimer: he is a friend and distant relative of mine) was recently charged with sedition, and initial reports indicated that it was due to a comment he made in an article on an online news portal run by a major local newspaper company.

At first I was incredulous that editors would let anything seditious through, but after reading the article, I am puzzled what exactly the offensive remark was. As a result, I doubt that his charge really has anything to do with that article.

But it won’t stop us at trying to guess what he said wrong in the article and will try reading between the lines more carefully next time we write something, lest we offend, albeit unintentionally. Might as well stick with reporting the weather, then.

So we have this technology to bring people together, but regulations and authorities seem intend to keep putting themselves in the way. We can work a way forward, though.

In the city of Portland, USA, AirBnB has been in discussions with the city authorities and will now collect state lodging tax on behalf of its hosts.

Meanwhile, homeowners need to apply for a permit costing USD178.08 (RM569) and allow a city inspector to check their rooms meet safety requirements.

If the objective isn’t to stop people from doing what they can, but trying to find a way for them to do so safely, then a route can be found if all parties sit together. It’s a win-win situation.

Except maybe for existing hotel and taxi drivers.

  • Logic is the antithesis of emotion for mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof. The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

Tags / Keywords: Internet, Sedition, Uber, Azmi Sharom, Media Freedom

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