Let’s be clear: Uber brought this on itself. But not for the reasons you might expect.
Most of the public fuss surrounding Uber has been, rightly, about the wages it pays its drivers. But when Transport For London issued its statement announcing that would be terminating the taxi firm’s licence earlier today, it contained no mention of business models. Instead, TfL put the reason as Uber’s “lack of corporate responsibility.”
The basic problem was simple: Uber wasn’t easy for regulators such as TfL to deal with. In fact, Uber was a complete asshole.
To understand the extent of Uber’s viciousness, you need to know about a piece of software called Greyball. This was the tool Uber created to track public officials in cities across the world, everywhere from Boston to Paris to Seoul. If it recognised a regulator, then it would “Greyball” them – tag them and track them, to make sure they couldn’t see what Uber was up to, or even hail a cab home from a night out.
Uber used data from its app to track officials; it also looked at their credit card information. Another technique, according to the New York Times, which first reported on Greyball in March this year, involved drawing a geofence around government offices, then seeing who was using the app regularly within that space.
Uber spied on public officials. That crosses any line of “fit and proper conduct,” something the innovation warriors bleating that TfL’s decision compromises London’s “digital future” would do well to remember.
What’s more, when regulators complained, Uber didn’t appear to care. Its co-founder and former CEO, Travis Kalanick, ran his company according to a principle he called, with characteristic diffidence, “Travis’s Law”. According to this dictum, if people wanted a product badly enough, politicians and regulators would eventually bow to public pressure.
Now Kalanick is gone and Travis’s Law has been broken in the biggest, richest city in Europe. TfL explicitly named Greyball in its statement, describing software that could “prevent officials from undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties.” We don’t know if it was being used in London – maybe TfL didn’t know either. But clearly it wasn’t happy with the assurances, if any, that Uber presented.
But before we celebrate this decision as a victory for good governance, we need to think carefully about what it means. Not for Uber the company, but for the 40,000 drivers who rely on it for income. Where will they go if Uber loses its appeal?
The obvious answer would seem to be: to an identikit Uber competitor. As TfL did not rule out Uber’s business model, it will be quite easy for an alternative to set up and take its place: all they’ll have to do is not be as evil as Uber. (Many competitors fail at this hurdle; not all will.) Meanwhile, the drivers being exploited by the “sharing economy” business model will be no better off than they were under the previous regime.
Some people would like to see Uber and its ilk banned altogether. That misses out on one truth: Uber’s product is better than what went before. Not just for late night frolics between Fulham and the King’s Road, but for people who rely on it to get through the day: working mothers; sex workers; gay men hooking up. Why should they struggle on in a black-cab world when app travel is here and ready to serve?
London deserves better. That is why now is the time to start an employee-owned version of Uber that pays fair wages and respects the city and its citizens.
The idea is not new: it has been done before, most notably in Austin, Texas, where, after Uber and Lyft were temporarily banned, local citizens set up RideAustin, a nonprofit that takes no commission on fares beyond what it needs to run its business. Since launching in 2016, RideAustin has attracted 5,000 active drivers and completed two million rides, according to the Ringer.
Uber’s licence runs out in 21 days, although in practice the firm’s appeal will probably mean it has longer. That gives us at least three weeks. So: here’s the plan. Create a new company. Crowdfund money to help develop an app. Then get it started: every Uber driver left stranded can use it to make money, have a say in the running of the business, and receive a share of annual profits.
Could it work? To see if the idea made sense, I asked a venture capitalist who’s overseen the creation of hundreds of companies. “I think it could,” he told me, adding that the tech would be relatively easy. “The really hard thing is customer acquisition.”
Customer acquisition is the dark art of getting users onto your app. Uber were experts at it – but this alternative would have something it never did. It would be made by Londoners, for Londoners; it would be a sharing economy app that actually deserved its name. What could be a better response to 2017 than making this happen?