The City of San Francisco laid down the law earlier this month, threatening the makers of three parking apps – MonkeyParking, ParkModo, and Sweetch –with cease-and-desist letters and demands to stop operations by July 11 or face lawsuits and fines.
The apps match drivers who are in search of parking with those willing to part with their spot in exchange for cash.
Now it’s July 11 and, although the companies have disabled their services in the City, none of those companies have given up hopes for operating their apps in San Francisco. All say they are in communication with the City, struggling to find ways to make their apps work within the framework of the law.
The city attorney’s office has asked both MonkeyParking and ParkModo to respond to the cease-and-desist letters they’ve received by the close of business Friday. Matt Dorsey, Press Secretary to City Attorney Denis Herrera, said in a statement, “While we have received responses (from the parking app companies), and while we've also read conflicting reactions in news accounts, City Attorney Herrera intends to honor the courtesy he extended them by waiting until after the July 11 deadline before commenting or taking further action.”
All three app companies as well as the city attorney’s office are treading carefully around this prickly, legal debate.
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According to San Francisco Police Code 63(C ), it is illegal to rent or block off public street parking or sidewalks. It’s illegal whether or not you’ll be making a profit from saving or blocking off spots, Dorsey explained, even if you’re blocking off the sidewalk to save spots for your kid’s birthday party, you’re violating the law.
Parking app companies, however, don’t think the city is interpreting the police code correctly.
MonkeyParking, the first company to come under fire from San Francisco, said Thursday that they have temporarily disabled their app until they can travel to San Francisco to meet with city officials. In a letter, MonkeyParking said that, while is disagrees with the city’s allegations, it is making changes to the app to reflect the city’s concerns.
The letter added, “Please note that our temporary suspension of the service is not to be construed as an admission of any wrongdoing.”
MonkeyParking feels wrongfully targeted because the company believes it is part of a new “social sharing space” faced with outdated San Francisco laws written “pre-shared economy.” Through meeting with city officials and legal counsel, MonkeyParking feels confident that its business will prevail.
ParkModo said in correspondence with the City last week that it was “entirely surprised to have been accused of violating an ordinance.” Co-founder Daniel Shifrin added in an interview with NBC Bay Area Friday that he thinks that San Francisco’s interpretation of ParkModo “is completely wrong.”
Like the other parking app companies, Shifrin insists that his company is not selling public space, just information about parking spaces.
“No one can tell me what type of personal information I can and cannot sell, It’s really a travesty what the city is doing,” Shifrin said.
For the time being, ParkModo – like MonkeyParking – has disabled its app within the city boundaries of San Francisco, though the app is still operational in a number of other cities, including other parts of the Bay Area. App users who try to use ParkModo now will receive a message telling them that the app is temporarily unavailable in San Francisco and urging the public to support ParkModo by writing complaints to local representatives.
Though San Francisco officials are concerned that people could sit on spots to sell them for later, ParkModo counters that people couldn’t make a living out of doing so.
ParkModo executives are frustrated but hopeful that their app will soon be operational again in San Francisco. They see their parking technology as a genuine public service and are optimistic that the city and the public will too.
The lollipop-logoed company Sweetch is in a different situation from the other parking app companies caught in these brewing legal battles.
Matt Dorsey confirmed that as soon as the news came out in June about MonkeyParking’s cease-and-desist letter, Sweetch approached the city and asked for a grace period in exchange for immediately changing their business model.
Consequently, San Francisco has held off from issuing Sweetch a cease-and-desist letter, but the city attorney's office is still waiting to meet with the company to go over the details of their new business model.
In accordance with the city’s demands, Sweetch will now be completely free to users. The app’s creators released the code they developed as open source technology called Freetch. Freetch has received international attention from transportation experts and entrepreneurs who are excited to use the free code to help them solve parking problems in other cities.
Early next week, the app founders will launch a new project called “Spot Angels,” which will provide free information to users about street closures and street clearings.
Sweetch co-founder Aboud Jardaneh says that the new app will help San Franciscans avoid getting parking tickets and demonstrate that he and his colleagues are more committed to solving San Francisco’s parking woes than making a profit.
“People shouldn’t be stressing about parking” he urged.
City Attorney’s Office
Despite all the changes promised from the app companies, the City is still waiting to see how the proposed changes will work in practice. Public officials are still concerned that these apps may allow people to “squat” on parking spots and monopolize parking.
Companies like MonkeyParking are equally concerned about city officials handling the issue. MonkeyParking argued that the legal scrutiny they’ve received for sharing parking information is a violation of First Amendment rights, they explain, “I have the right to tell people if I am about to leave a parking spot and they have the right to pay me for such information.”
But do people really have a right to be paid for information they share? That’s the fundamental question that public officials and aspiring sharing economy entrepreneurs are wrestling with.
Sweetch’s Aboud Jardaneh believes that other controversial companies in the business of sharing such as Uber and Airbnb grew so quickly in the Bay Area that now it’s too late for public officials to curb their influence. He feels that the city tried to strike early to regulate parking apps to avoid the type of tension San Francisco has had with other sharing economy companies.
But Matt Dorsey disagrees that the parking apps are on par with Airbnb and Uber. He also says that the city attorney’s office doesn’t see parking apps as true members of the sharing economy.
“MonkeyParking and ParkModo and possibly also Sweetch have very little to do with the business models of other sharing economies,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey believes these app companies are trying to make themselves part of the larger narrative of the sharing economy in ways that are patently illegal.
In the City Attorney’s eyes, the sharing economy is a place where value wouldn’t have existed before, a place that improves the lives of the public. Dorsey identified other parking companies such as CARMAnation and ParkatmyHouse as businesses which maximize the positive promise of the sharing economy to help motorists and create public benefit.
“That’s exactly not what MonkeyParking is doing” Dorsey said.