The Fundamental Flaw in Sharing Applications Like Airbnb, Getaround, and CLOO

Turning your home into a public bathroom with a toilet-sharing iPhone app won’t work, and not for the obvious reasons.

Sep 7, 2011

CLOO’ from Hillary Young on Vimeo.

The core problem with the move to enable a sharing economy via the web and IT is that it puts the liability for loss on the wrong person’s shoulders – namely, the consumer.

As they currently operate, sites like Airbnb, which let you rent out your apartment to relative strangers, Getaround, which does the same for cars, and now CLOO, which lets you rent just your bathroom, have failed to overcome this difficulty, and the history of credit cards illustrates why.

Federal law limits your liability for credit card fraud to $50, and most companies wave even that token amount. This means that the obligation to secure credit card transactions lies entirely with the credit card company and not the consumer. This is the reason that consumers accept credit cards as a universal medium of payment, and it’s also the reason that card issuers have sophisticated systems for tracking fraud even if their point-of-service security isn’t all that great. (Think about it: a signature? What can that accomplish if a card is stolen?)

This isn’t my insight. The reasons that credit cards just work were recently explained to me by security guru Bruce Schneier, and his words came back to me as I read Jess Zimmerman’s hilarious take on toilet sharing app CLOO.

Some of the sites I’ve just named – notably Airbnb – have gone to great lengths to address the inherent security liabilities in their model. But insurance simply isn’t enough. No matter how much money Airbnb or Getaround will give you when someone screws up your stuff, there’s still the pain and hassle of setting things right again, not to mention the emotional hit you’ll take when you realize someone’s violated your property.

Worse, part of Airbnb’s “solution” to the problem is a general handover to the client of the responsibility for vetting potential tenants. Seeing someone’s real name is great and all, but imagine if credit card companies took the same approach. Rather than actively scanning for fraud, they would give us information about retailers and then let us evaluate their riskiness?

Unless these sharing sites can make sharing as painless as credit card fraud – that is, no more difficult than getting a new piece of plastic in the mail – using them will always remain a niche market. I hope their investors take that into account when the leaders of these companies are showing them charts with explosive growth potential.