29 December 2014

Uber - the story of Technology Terrorism

Socially disruptive Technology?
    In India, we have seen the tragedy of a woman assaulted by an Uber taxi driver, and it has saddened all of us. We want society, the government, to do everything to prevent its happening again.
    Uber however is unrepentant. It is stating that it is not a taxi service at all. It asserts that it is only a web app. According to Uber, it is only a 'platform', the app only 'connects' the driver to the passenger.
    So even though it advertises and promotes its taxi service aggressively, it claims it is not a 'transportation company' and therefore is not responsible for what a normal taxi service would be accountable for.
    For Uber, our sister in Delhi is not a 'passenger' or 'customer'; she is just another data entry in their web app. As far as they are concerned, one data packet had a glitch; they claim no other relationship with the raped woman.
    One can sense strongly that something is terribly wrong in this whole buisness of web cabs. And in investigating this 'thing' called Uber, we discover a deeper and more worrying story - that of Technology Terrorism, which is the emerging face of free market liberal economy..
    Uber is a small company in San Francisco, USA, run by a man with a large ego. Travis Kalanick, its Chief Executive, wants world domination much like the characters of James Bond films. While those like Goldfinger may have sought to own all the gold in the world and done terrible things to achieve that, Travis Kalanick is desperate to run his taxis in all the cities of the world, and is equally willing to do terrible things to achieve his ambition. We may call him Taxifinger.
    Here's a list of Uber's misdoings, worldwide:
1. Uber openly disobeys laws in most of the cities in which it starts operations. In New Delhi, too, it was running illegally without permit.
2. This is not an error, it is by design. Uber has a deliberate confrontational approach of defying the local city or municipal regulatory authority. It cheats by not paying licencing fees and breaks the law by not having GPS installed in its cars. It avoids or evades paying taxes.
3. Uber does not hold commercial liability insurance as required by law in many countries or cities. Since it is only an 'app', it does not have a local address or local staff. It took the Delhi police two days to get Uber to give details about the rogue driver.
4. Uber does not do any security check on the drivers' antecedents, and frankly, it is not interested. When you hire its taxi service, you are forced to agree to their terms (on the website) which says: "Uber does not guarantee the suitability, safety or ability of third-party providers (drivers)… By using the services, you acknowledge that you may be exposed to situations involving third-party providers that are potentially unsafe…”
5. No wonder that the 27-year-old woman assaulted in Gurgaon is only the latest in a long list of passengers victimized by Uber drivers in other markets across the world. On Dec 17, an Uber driver in Boston was charged with the kidnapping and rape of a female passenger - the incident happened earlier this month.
    The Indian government therefore banned the service. Not for the rape incident alone, but because Uber was running illegally. This fact was not understood or explained by the media clearly, and so there were a lot of loose comments and editorials about it being a 'knee-jerk reaction'.
    Allow me to share with you other recent actions against Uber worldwide:
1. A day after the Delhi ban, both Thailand and Spain said that Uber's service is illegally operating in their countries.
2. On Dec 9, a judge in Spain ordered Uber to end all operations in that country.
3. On the same day, the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles filed suit against Uber for unlawful business practices and insufficient security checks. Another web-based taxi service Lyft agreed to pay a fine of $500,000 and swore to abide by rules.
4. Last week, Oregon city in USA suspended Uber and also sued it for failing to comply with local laws. Officials there said they're ready to issue civil and criminal penalties against the company and its drivers.
5. Also last week, a report from Belgium's capital Brussels said that Uber could face charges for continuing to operate despite being banned. The city may also block its mobile app.
6. In Nevada, USA, a judge had issued a restraining order against Uber a month ago, forcing it to shut down its service.
7. On Dec 15, hundreds of taxi drivers blocked roads around Paris to protest against Uber's tactics in the French capital.
    With all this happening so quickly, South Korea issued a warning to Uber not to set up shop in Seoul. And yet, Travis 'Taxifinger' Kalanick  last fortnight did just the opposite - he launched his service in that country, again illegally.
    Another area of deep concern is what Uber does with all the private information that it collects about its passengers. There are questions in its own country, USA, about gross misuse of private data. In a serious case involving a woman passenger in New York, Uber passed on her full name, address and place of work to a taxi driver whom she had once hired. The driver also had information that she had registered a complaint against him for taking photos of her surreptitiously, thus putting the woman passenger in grave danger.
    So there are a lot of questions being asked worldwide about this modern business creature which enters as an outlaw, and then terrorizes local authorities. Does this momentum against it signify the beginning of the end of Uber?
    It will be interesting to see what happens next. Because despite all the facts stated above, Uber continues to run its taxis in more than 50 cities in a dozen countries. How come? And the answer is: by forcing a change in local laws. City after city in the USA, and then in Europe, have given in to pressure and changed their own laws to suit Uber - instead of asking Uber to comply with existing laws.
    To understand what this pressure is, one must consider the money game of technology funding. Uber, though only a 4-year start-up with no assets, is valued at more than $40bn after its latest round of funding. And the funders include the biggest investment sharks: Goldman Sachs, Google Ventures, Jeff Bezos, Blackrock, Benchmark, and Menlo Ventures. They plan for Uber to make a public offering next year and rake in huge profits.
    With so such money being gambled on this small technology outfit, they cannot afford for it to fail. And so the biggies of the global money game put pressure on politicians through lobbyists and public relations firms (who use threats, favours and bribes). So this is the modus operandi of Uber: first, begin services illegally, and then put pressure on local governments to extract a new regulatory regime that favours it over other legally operating taxi companies.
    And this is the significance of the story of Uber. We have entered a new era of business terrorism, of technology terrorism.
    In India too, it shocked many people that cabinet minister Nitin Gadkari immediately came to Uber's defence within a day of its being banned. In the media, there was hardly a single editorial that questioned such terror tactics in business; not one newspaper said that Uber must leave, permanently. Such is the power of lobbying pressure in modern economics. There will surely be rewards too for bowing to such pressure.
    But this business terrorism succeeds only because it has support from us. Uber uses technology to directly contact the individual citizen, without telling him the truth about its illegality. It uses the dazzle of technology to particularly attract the young earning adult (to use Uber taxt, you MUST have a Smart Phone and a Credit Card). The young adult is attracted by the glamour of the web app; in a society fragmented by modern economics, he does not stop to think what such economics is doing to society as a whole.
    Yes, technology is convenient, it is attractive, it is fun. But technology is also harmful, disruptive, addictive. Technology has divided us and made us more and more individualistic. We are only looking at our own comfort and convenience, our own 'rights', our own avenues of fun, caring little for community, the larger society, or the environment. We are willing to overlook serious crimes so long as we get our pleasure: our air-conditioning, air travel, wi-fi and now, web-taxi-rides.
In this way, technology is changing human behaviour. So long as technology is in the control of commerce, of big business, this change in behaviour is seen to be disruptive, exploitative, and divisive. So how can technology be wrested from the hands of commerce, and be used wisely for a humane society? That remains the unanswered question.
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Read more at:
1. Uber hist roadblocks in Thailand, Spain:
2. Uber cabs in Portland suspended:
3. Uber could face criminal charged in Brussels:
4. Uber sued by LA and San Francisco:
5. Boston driver charged with raping woman:
6. Sexual harassment by Uber drivers:
7. Uber gives British woman 20 pounds credit after driver sexually harasses her:
8. Most web taxi services take you for a ride:
9. If you don't like Uber now, don't worry.. http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/H2szy8ZUNmD3iCxC3PwrVK/If-you-dont-like-Uber-right-now-dont-worry-you-soon-will.html?utm_source=copy
10. Uber: the honey badger of taxi service: