Uber - The Digital Titanic

Uber: The Digital Titanic

“A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, ‘Huh. It works. It makes sense.'”

– Barack Obama

In February, I came across an Uber cab going the wrong way on a major road in Pune. The enraged driver caused at least one accident, and brought traffic to a grinding halt for 2 miles on both sides, then ran over me. I captured most of it on a video uploaded to facebook:

My incident is not isolated, however, and this post is not personal. At this point, the proverbial coffin has no space for any more nails. Criminally underpaid drivers, bitter employees, institutionalised sexual harrassment, evasion of law enforcement agencies, a delusional hack for a founder – Uber is a case-study in start-up oncology.

How Many Organs Must Decay Before Disease Is Acknowledged?

Last week, Uber confirmed to The Atlantic the existence of a program to allegedly deny certain users of its service, and mislead law enforcement officers in places where Uber’s arrival had generated controversy. A dedicated mirror was created for flagged accounts, with a map-view intended to give the perception that a ride was nearby, showing phantom cars moving across a map, but the driver would always cancel. The program was called VTOS – Violations of Terms of Service.

“What we’re dealing with here is a new class of bastard: the bro gone pro, the freewheeling post-Randian slimeball whose insecure sense of entitlement is the foundation of his business model.”

– Laurie Penny, The Guardian

Colour me communist, but I cannot condone “Unicorns” operating at the cost of security and public safety. When your virtual service begins to have real world consequences, you must play by the big boy rules. Consider for a moment that even in the capitalist war hog that is the United States, airsoft guns (a lot like plastic BB guns) are sold with a large orange tip on the muzzle, and that it is illegal to remove the orange tip to avoid confusion with real firearms.

Fortunately, India is not a laissez-faire economy, and shouldn’t aspire to be. The Preamble to the Constitution enshrines and exalts a strong socialist element, albeit forged in the heat of Prime Minister Gandhi’s bloodstained Emergency, but a fundamental also shared by visionaries like Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru. Today, India is a steady market where Public and Private work not in isolation, but in unison, to uphold the spirit of free enterprise built on that bedrock of social responsibility.

Bad Governance Isn’t helping. Neither Is No Governance.

Even as global Press pluck tumour after tumour from Uber’s still-twitching remains, the Federal Court of Australia has ruled unambiguously that UberX ridesharing is classified as a “taxi service”. This landmark judgement is crucial to assigning a tax identity to, and regulating, Uber and others of the ilk. European Courts are engulfed in furious debate along the same lines, with experts and Press expecting them to hold a similar stance. The message is unfaultering, and the messengers are united: There exists a middle-ground where all sides must meet, but in this middle-ground ethics, oversight and responsibility are non-negotiable. Anyone who protests a seat at the table has either not understood the rules of the game, or doesn’t want to play by them.

That being said, this is not a call to dismantle or boycott Uber or Travis Kalanick. Quite the contrary, the need of the hour is to study, restructure and rehabilitate. In India, as in most countries, Uber and other transport aggregators operate as online service providers, governed by vague and often archaic laws.

The Motor Vehicle Act (1988) prescribes specific permits for transport vehicles, and the Information Technology Act (2000) regulates IT firms & cybercrime, yet both of them fall short of regulating or, indeed, even defining companies like Uber, Ola and Lyft. Beyond these Acts, Road Transport and Taxi Services are largely in the domain of State administration, leaving each state to concoct its own lopsided legislation.

One Ring To Rule Them All

The notion of a nationwide Law for Transport Operators appears not to have escaped the attention of Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, but the urgency has. Uber may well be a feast for Valley Vultures someday; the industry, however, is here to stay. To prevent any more spectacular implosions, it is imperative that we:

  • Identify Uber and other transport aggregators as both a transport and e-commerce service. Tax and regulate for both as well. No free rides.
  • Compile an indexed, searchable public record of all vehicles plying for transport aggregators.
  • Require that operators provide a customer service phone line with the number displayed inside and outside the vehicle. At the time of writing, Uber does not provide any contact number to Indian users, only a chat function in the app.
  • Ensure vehicle ownership & maintenance compliance, and equip all taxis with GPS tracking, dashboard cameras and a panic button.
  • Screen all drivers for legal permits, criminal & psychological history, and medical background. An exhaustive vetting procedure to ensure the driver is fit to perform.
  • Train all drivers to navigate and interact in the local language, train customer service representatives in troubleshooting, and conduct periodic reviews of all vehicles and employees.
  • Amend the existent Motor Vehicle Act to better integrate & govern taxi aggregators, and update Labour and Consumer Protection Laws to raise the bar for corner-cutting wack jobs like Kalanick.

“Growth for the sake of growth” is the ideology of the cancer cell. And Uber is a particularly malignant startup. It is also a warning to act deliberately and act now.

Ankur Borwankar is an author, lawyer, motivational speaker & entrepreneur. He is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Indus Dictum.

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This article first appeared in Indus Dictum.

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