Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Terrorism and the Sharing Economy

By Simon Grose

Whether new technologies are applied for good or ill, they encounter evolutionary pressure to fit in to the environments they inhabit.

The word “disruptive” has become commonplace during the first 15% of the 21st century.

This burgeoning usage is directly a function of scientific and technological innovation, mostly in computing, communication and transport. The private and public sectors latched onto these innovations and are still running hard, transforming many aspects of ordinary and extraordinary life.

The mobile phone you have today is a supercomputer compared to the one you had in 2000. The way governments deliver services and gather information to and from their citizens has been radically transformed. The demise of the advertising base for newspapers – and thus of the commercial survival of newspapers and other print media – is well underway. War is increasingly waged by remote controllers guiding pilotless weapons platforms in the air, with proto-platforms rapidly emerging for sea and land.

The prime targets of the new military technologies are also avid developers of new technologies to fight ancient feuds. The terror practitioners of the first 15% of this century – from 9/11 on – have been deft in their use of mobile communications as an organisational tool and social media as a recruitment tool. Much of their innovation has been in the zone broadly defined as “peer-to-peer”.

Like Airbnb and Uber.

Airbnb claims that in 2014 more than 25 million guests stayed in a property in one of 34,000 cities in 190 countries via its facilitation of guest–landlord deals. Uber has been operating in Australia since 2012 and now facilitates ride-sharing in all Australian cities. Even mainstream taxi drivers use it to find fares in quiet times.

These are exemplars of the “sharing economy”, a concept keenly colonised as a policy opportunity by hyperactive Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh. A discussion paper he issued early in 2015 canvassed issues like how to tax them and regulate them to ensure public safety, workers’ rights and access for people with disability.

This is a sign of the success of high-profile peer-to-peer sharing outfits, but they don’t like it. Uber is particularly waging a legal battle to avoid paying GST, even though its mainstream competitors do.

When it comes to regulating peer-to-peer interactions for the purpose of justice and national security, the government and Labor are united in requiring telcos to retain metadata for use by investigative agencies. The Greens and user groups like the Internet Society reject this, citing privacy and cost concerns.

The more successful a disruptive technology, the more it is likely to be tamed.

Simon Grose is Editor of Canberra IQ (canberraiq.com.au)