Just watched the documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix, which takes a critical look at some of the tech giants that dominate our world today (although not Netflix itself, for some reason), largely from the perspective of some former employees who h…
Last week I was in Berlin at the invitation of the IEEE to help develop standards for responsible technology (P7000). One of the working groups (P7001) is looking at transparency, especially in relation to autonomous and semi-autonomous systems. In thi…
What are the ethics of diverting people from smoking to vaping?On the one hand, we have the following argument.E-cigarettes (“vaping”) offer a plausible substitute for smoking cigarettes.Smoking is dangerous, and vaping is probably much less dangerous….
In 2001-2, Julia Black published some papers discussing the concept of Decentred Regulation, with particular relevance to the challenges of globalization. In this post, I shall summarize her position as I understand it, and apply it to the topic of res…
Last Thursday, @ThinkRiseLDN (Rise London, a FinTech hub) hosted a discussion on Ethics in Technology (15 November 2018).Since many of the technologies under discussion are designed to support the financial services industry, the core et…
#democracydisrupted Last Tuesday, @Demos organized a discussion on The Future of Political Campaigning (13 November 2018). The panelists included the Information Commissioner (@ElizabethDenham) and the CEO of the Electoral Commission (@ClaireERBassett)…
@NilsPratley blames delusion in the boardroom (on a grand scale, he says) for Carillion’s collapse. “In the end, it comes down to judgments made in the boardroom.”A letter to the editor of the Financial Times agrees.”This situation has been caused, in …
On Friday, Transport for London (TfL) declared that Uber was not fit and proper to hold a private hire operator licence. Uber’s current licence expires next week. However, Uber can continue to operate in London until any appeal processes have been exhausted. (TFL Press Release, 22 September 2017)
By Saturday afternoon, a petition in Uber’s favour had raised half a million signatures. Uber seems to put more energy into campaigning against evil regulators than into operating within the regulations, and was evidently already prepared for this fight. (You don’t send out messages to millions of customers at the drop of a hat without a bit of forward planning.) As Emine Saner writes,
“Calling for better legislation certainly is not as exciting as a glossy app, or whipped-up social media reaction, but it may make your trip home safer – and would be a better use of online petitions.”
The protests follow a number of well-worn arguments
- Many users of the Uber service (especially young women) have become dependent on a cheap, convenient and supposedly safer alternative to public transport and expensive taxis.
- Many drivers have borrowed heavily to invest in the Uber business model, and fear being thrown into penury.
- This is an anti-competitive and technologically backward move, prompted by entrenched interests. And as TfL is itself a transport operator, it is not appropriate that TfL should regulate its competitors.
None of these arguments can be taken completely at face value.
- It is true that many women believe the Uber model is safer than the alternatives; however, some women have been raped, and other women have had extremely scary experiences. Uber is accused of failing to carry out proper checks, and failing to report serious incidents.
- Uber service is cheap not only because it cuts costs and exploits its drivers, but also because it is subsidized by Uber investors. This looks suspiciously like predatory pricing rather than fair competition. Analysts such as Izabella Kaminska argue that Uber will only become profitable when it has driven its competitors out of business, at which point it will be able to increase its prices. Like much of Silicon Valley, it appears to operate according to the Peter Thiel anti-competition playbook. Even Steve Bannon has been heard arguing for closer regulation of what are effectively monopoly platforms.
- Technology companies such as Uber sometimes describe themselves as “disruptive”. While it is true that disruptions sometimes yield socioeconomic benefits, the belief that disruption is always good for competition is based on ideology rather than evidence. Regulation is generally opposed to disruption.
- And as Stephen Bush points out, it’s not as a digital start-up company that Uber has fallen foul of regulations, but as an old fashioned minicab operator. (As John Bull explains, Uber London is just a minicab company; the app is operated by Uber BV in the Netherlands. This corporate separation helps Uber to finesse both regulation and tax.) Persuading politicians and economists to see Uber as a shining example of technological progress is just “a very, very clever marketing trick”.
I’m quoting Steve Bannon because I’m just amazed to find something I agree with him about. Regulating platforms is not the same as regulating regular companies, and the general art of regulation needs a kick up the proverbial. However, that is no reason to diss the current regulations or regulators, who are doing the best they can with insufficient regulatory mechanisms and resources. Experience from other cities shows that if Uber can’t get its act together, there are plenty others that can.
John Bull, Understanding Uber: It’s Not About The App (Reconnections 25 September 2017)
Stephen Bush, The right are defending Uber, because they don’t really understand it (New Statesman 22 September 2017)
Martin Farrer, Nadia Khomami et al, More than 500,000 sign petition to save Uber as firm fights London ban (Guardian 23 September 2017)
Ryan Grim, Steve Bannon Wants Facebook and Google Regulated Like Utilities (The Intercept, 27 July 2017)
Izabella Kaminska. For references see earlier post Uber Mathematics 2 (December 2016)
Sam Levine,‘There is life after Uber’: what happens when cities ban the service? (Guardian 23 September 2017)
Jason Murugesu, Night bus or black cab – what will save stranded Londoners post-Uber? (New Statesman 22 September 2017)
Andrew Orlowski, Why Uber isn’t the poster child for capitalism you wanted (The Register, 26 September 2017)
Emine Saner, Will the end of Uber in London make women more or less safe? (Guardian, 25 September 2017)
Another weekend, another too good to pass up Twitter conversation during my “unplugged” time. This weekend, Grady Booch hooked me by retweeting Mike Potts tweet: Mike’s tweet was a reply to Grady’s comment on the latest news out of Uber: It’s an understandable question. It’s a reasonable question. It’s one that came up back […]
Where are Uber’s real competitors? The obvious answer would be the traditional taxi operators in large cities. Taxi services are usually controlled by city authorities or other regulators, to ensure that the prices are fair, and that the drivers and th…
Thanks to Volkswagen, we now have an idea of the cost of failing to maintain an ethical culture, roughly $18 billion US (emphasis added in the quoted text below by me): Volkswagen’s financial disclosure on Friday, in a preliminary earnings report, came a day after the company agreed on the outlines of a plan to […]
Ian Bogost’s “Programmers: Stop Calling Yourselves Engineers” in the Atlantic, claims “The title “engineer” is cheapened by the tech industry.” He goes on to state: When it comes to skyscrapers and bridges and power plants and elevators and the like, engineering has been, and will continue to be, managed partly by professional standards, and partly […]