Vol 11, Issue 4
I used to be very deliberate about using taxis instead of Uber. In moments of drunken self-righteousness, I’d rail on to my friends about supporting the local economy while finishing the last swigs of my imported beer. Sometime around mid-2015, though, I eventually gave up defending 13 CABS and their annoying jingle. This was partly due to a few miserable taxi rides, but more because Uber is cheap, accessible, and really efficient. More than any ideological argument, I was won over by the convenience.
Now that Uber’s program to collect data on local law enforcement officials (including in Australia) in order to prevent them from using the app has been made public by the New York Times last week, I have a new reason for feeling uneasy about using the service. The program was a glaringly obvious attempt to prevent the drivers on their unregulated service from being fined and it coupled with their aggressive approach to litigation, marketing, and service expansion. The Times merely confirmed and provided the name (Greyball) to a tool people knew existed since at least 2014, but more tellingly it summed up Uber’s attitude to laws put in place by democratically elected governments. Local laws don’t matter to Uber. Uber exists in a global economy where legality is determined by winning consumer loyalty, not obtaining government approval.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick confirmed this attitude in an interview with the Wall Street Journal when he claimed that corruption in the taxi industry and regulatory capture have made it impossible to gain permission for services that (he believes) should already be legal. While the taxi industry has its own issues, and hasn’t exactly embraced innovation, this doesn’t account for the fact that not seeking permission from local governments and then actively trying to avoid prosecution has become Uber’s business model. In San Francisco, Uber went through three rounds of this pattern for three different service rollouts over six years: release an unregulated service, fight cease and desist notices, win over consumers, and hope the government comes around eventually. In a blog post about their most recent rollout in San Francisco (a self-driving car service), Uber's vice president of self-driving technology, Anthony Levandowski, dismissed the need for a permit application because ‘[m]ost states see the potential benefits’ of a self-driving car service and their hope is that California ‘will take a similar view’. The concerns of San Francisco’s residents, its laws, or unique infrastructure needs weren’t worth a mention in the media release, since their self-driving service rollout worked in Pittsburgh so what’s the problem, San Fran?
You have to give them points for their tenacity, though. When they experienced pushback from consumers and courts in Germany and France, they just re-branded into UberTaxi and UberPop and tried again, using legal loopholes to keep their brand on the market until these local governments learned to ‘take a similar view’.
This aggressive strategy has won in Victoria, and now a logistics company who claims not to own any vehicles or employ any drivers has dismantled the taxi-licensing scheme. The Victorian government has stopped resisting or trying to criminalise Uber’s consumer-led disruption and is now instead trying to implement a $2 levy on rides in order to fund the licensing buybacks. Uber’s response? Send out a rallying cry to get Victorian consumers to lobby against their own government.
I’m not writing about resisting technological advancement. Uber is an innovative solution to the way our transport and employment needs have changed. But their aggressive resistance to regulations, recent changes to their data collection policy, and disregard for the complexity of local economies (or the impact this disruption has on people’s lives) makes me a lot less likely to lobby against their $2 levy, and a lot more likely to just take the tram.
Luke Thomas is a third-year JD student
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