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Sorry, startups: Selling public parking places is illegal

The so-called sharing economy has had its share of head-scratchers. No one wants to pay for your leftovers, no matter how much you’d like to monetize your unused pizza assets. But this one takes the cake.

On Monday, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera had to issue a cease and desist letter against a startup called MonkeyParking that enables its users to auction off access to public parking places. Yes, public parking places, on the street—spaces that belong to everyone and are illegal to sell or rent. Duh. Of course they are.

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Screwing over your fellow citizens with the “help” of an app: so easy a monkey could do it. 

Here’s how MonkeyParking works: I get in my car, which is legally parked at a metered or unmetered parking spot. I don’t need that space any longer, but instead of just driving away and leaving the space vacant for someone else, I fire up the app and “publish” the space. Other users with the app can see that about-to-be-vacant space, and name a price to entice me to save the spot expressly for them. Someone could offer $10, I would accept, and then I’d just sit in the space sending Slingshots or playing Candy Crush until the mystery driver shows up, and only then would I pull out of the parking space so he or she could take it. MonkeyParking handles the transaction part, and presumably takes a cut, although those kinds of pesky details are conveniently absent from both its website and the app itself.

MonkeyParking is based in Rome, Italy, so maybe the company and its CEO Paolo Dobrowolny were just ignorant of the prohibitions against selling access to something you don’t actually own or even legally control. Or maybe the company just didn’t care. Similarly, thousands of Airbnb listings in San Francisco violate a city ordinance against renting out living spaces for periods of less than 30 days, whether you’re a renter looking to sublet a place you don’t own (which most leases prohibit anyway) or even if you actually own the home in question. Airbnb says its users are responsible for following local laws, and the company just provides the platform for the hosts and the guests to arrange these illegal transactions—Airbnb isn’t breaking any laws itself, the company contends, even while it’s working to change the laws to make its business model legal.

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Sorry, John, Anna, and Dylan. I was just faking my primo parking spot. Also, you shouldn’t use apps while driving. 

And MonkeyParking isn’t actually out there squatting in public parking places and cashing in when some sucker agrees via a smartphone app to give them between $5 and $20 to clear out. But its entire reason for existing is to enable people to break the law. Just like Airbnb doesn’t provide legal services or help to its hosts when they receive eviction papers, MonkeyParking isn’t warning its users in San Francisco that using the app for its intended purpose could result in a $300 fine, nor, I suspect, would it help them pay or fight that fine if cited by an actual law enforcement officer.

Do I follow every law on the books? Probably not. But even without being familiar with every city ordinance, does my own common sense dictate that I shouldn’t try to sell access to public property that doesn’t belong to me? Yes. I mean, this isn’t rocket science, people—and stunts like this are giving the sharing economy and the entire startup scene a bad name.

Anyway, MonkeyParking’s days are numbered—if the company keeps operating in San Francisco after July 11, Herrera’s office will fine it up to $2500 per violation. (Regular joes caught selling access to public parking spaces face penalties of up to $300 per violation, for the record.) Apple has also been asked to remove the iOS-only app from the App Store—it’s still there as of this writing—and Herrera has also given notice that cease-and-desist letters are coming this week for similar apps Sweetch and ParkModo.

Developers: come up with better ideas for world-changing apps than this, please. Maybe an app that lets me rent out my sense of shame to startups that clearly don’t have one.

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