Beyond London’s Uber-ban: several magazines this week have been commenting on the recent anti-Silicon Valley groundswell, citing both Facebook and Uber. We’ve selected a piece by The Economist.
The global techlash is picking up strength. There had been signs that Uber, the ride-hailing firm, might face difficulties renewing its operating licence for London, but it came as a shock when the capital’s regulator for transport networks, Transport for London (TfL), said it will not renew it because of doubts that the ride-hailing service is a “fit and proper” operator.
Uber’s current licence runs out on September 30th, and TfL’s decision not to renew may not be final. Uber immediately said that it would appeal, meaning it can continue to operate in the meantime in the British capital. Britain’s Department for Transport (DfT) may overrule TfL.
Just before the news on Uber, another online giant under fire, Facebook, on September 21st yielded to pressure from America’s Senate to be more transparent about political advertisements on the social network. On one level the cases are very different. Facebook’s woes stem from the spread of covert Russian propaganda on the site. But they are both part of a trend: big tech’s exceptionalism is eroding.
In Uber’s case, TfL’s main reasons for denying a new licence are twofold: first, how the world’s most valuable startup (with a valuation of nearly $70bn) vets its drivers and, second, its lax approach to reporting if they commit serious criminal offences against passengers. The company’s conduct “demonstrates a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to potential public safety and security implications”, the agency wrote in a statement.
Uber’s immediate response, that the decision showed the world that “far from being open, London is closed to innovative companies”, hit a nerve, for many worry that Brexit will inevitably leave Britain more inward-looking and less attractive as a base for global firms. The ride-hailing firm’s drivers in the capital are mostly immigrants. As for locals, “3.5m Londoners who use our app and more than 40,000 licensed drivers who rely on Uber to make a living will be astounded by this decision,” Tom Elvidge, Uber’s boss in London, pointed out.
TfL’s decision also sits oddly with the fact that Uber in August appointed a new chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, who seems much more aware of the physical world beyond Uber’s internet platform than his brash predecessor, Travis Kalanick, who was obliged to leave the firm in June.
Facebook has long held that it is just a technology company and is hence not responsible for the content it carries—a position based on America’s Communications Decency Act, a statute that largely exempts online firms from liability for their users’ actions. Similarly, Uber has argued that as an “information society service” it need not comply with many of the detailed regulations that apply to conventional transport businesses (though it submits to local law). The European Court of Justice is expected to decide later this year how Uber should be classified.
This was a reasonable position when the internet was still a sideshow and both firms were still small. But it has become ever harder to defend as they have grown bigger—and it has become clear that what happens on these platforms has an impact on the wider world. Russian propaganda has led to questions about President Donald Trump’s victory in last year’s elections. Uber is accused not just of creating security risks for its customers, but of worsening traffic problems and weakening public-transport systems by luring away passengers. As these “negative externalities” become more obvious, calls for the regulators and the platforms themselves to take action are mounting.
- There is more to innovation than providing a ‘taxi-app’. Safety is paramount.