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Data as rent in the platform economy

Authors: David Wachsmuth*, McGill University
Topics: Urban Geography
Keywords: short-term rentals, Airbnb, rent, urban geography, GIS
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

How does data structure the political economy of firms in the platform economy? In this paper, I answer this question through a mixed methods analysis of the short-term rental sector, relying on a complete dataset of all worldwide short-term rental activity on Airbnb and HomeAway since 2015, alongside extensive interviews with commercial short-term rental operators and local policymakers. I argue that, for firms in the platform economy, data should be understood as a key source of rents, and that their posture towards attempts by the local state to regulate them should be understood as efforts to protect the scarcity of the data, and hence its ability to generate these rents. I substantiate this argument through an analysis of "digital rent-scapes" generated by capital flows through short-term rental platforms into land markets, and how those rent-scapes have fared under municipal attempts to regulate the sector. I conclude by arguing that an increasingly central asset of platforms is control over who gets to know what they are doing, and thus that data is not just the currency of the platform economy, but rather a medium of struggle.

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