The basic idea is to connect those seeking employment with available jobs. In a gig or on-demand economy, freelancers use smartphones and other technology platforms to rent homes or drive passengers to destinations for income. Amid an uneven recovery since the recession, many Americans workers — everyone from college students to those chronically unemployed and in theirs 50s and older — have turned to small-task jobs to create a patchwork of employment.
Whether it's driving an Uber or Lyft car, or renting a space on Airbnb, an estimated 53 million Americans — more than 1 in 3 workers — are freelancers, according to a 2014 report by independent research firm Edelman Berland.
"All the social science says self-sufficiency cannot be overstated, to wake up everyday and do something," Khanna said. A technology policy expert, he pressed a campaign that led to a bill to legalize unlocking your cellphone.
"Even if it's not your old wage and not what you want to do in the future, it's vastly superior than not being able to do anything," Khanna said.
But some workplace and wage advocates have expressed doubt about the gig economy. Using a lucrative business model hinged on nonemployee status for its fleet of contract workers, workplace advocates say some of these start-ups are evading payroll taxes, workers compensation and unemployment insurance payments and minimum wage and overtime laws.
"With these on-demand jobs, you're either for innovation. And if you want any level of regulation, you're a stick in the mud and you want to put the business to a halt," said Sarah Leberstein, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. "That's a false dichotomy."
Just because hiring for short-term gigs is happening on mobile platforms doesn't mean labor laws are moot. "People have been hiring contract workers in the hall or the street for years," Leberstein said. "Just because it's taking place on the Internet doesn't mean that the nature of work is so fundamentally different that it requires a whole reworking of the labor laws."
Read MoreThe new American contract worker