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Uber and its reckless tech ethos deserve ban in London

If it wishes to keep operating in London, Uber will have to quickly abandon its reckless tech ethos.

By Silvia Martelli

On 22th September, Transport for London (TfL) announced that it would not renew Uber’s hire licence, officially banning the service in the capital after 30th September. Following this striking decision, the taxi company decided to appeal in the courts, and will continue to operate in London until the process is exhausted. Although this may take months, the 3.5 millions users and over 40.000 drivers are already expressing deep concerns and discord. The night the ban was made public, 400,000 people signed a change.org petition supporting a reversal of it.

The decision to remove Uber from one of its biggest markets was a harsh blow to the Silicon Valley company, which has kept substantially growing since its launch in 2009, raising £52bn. However, it was for the best: the reason for the ban was that Uber is ‘not fit and proper’ to the city. Despite the car hire operator being largely known for offering cheap, immediate and efficient services, its approach and conduct have been lacking responsibility in relation to running driver background checks, obtaining medical certificates, and reporting criminal offences. This has already been the case in countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain, where some of its services have been suspended, or banned completely as in Denmark.

Traffic London.jpg (Source: TOMOYOSHI via Flickr)
London Street

Contrary to what many believe, it must be said that Uber’s ban is not the result of a conflict of interests between an innovative service and some antiquated regulations. Similarly to other metropolises, London has in fact adopted new regulatory structures for ride-hailing services, delegating some responsibilities to companies themselves, in an attempt to facilitate running such businesses. Among these are setting fares, collecting data about drivers and rides, running criminal background checks, and managing more general safety affairs. As Uber has been inadequately reckless towards such responsibilities, it is now fair and due that it pays for it. Adding to the irresponsible behavior of the company, TfL called out for Uber’s use of Greyball, a custom-built secret software used to dodge the law in cities where regulations are consciously being violated. The programme analyzes data such as social media accounts, geolocation, and credit card information to identify suspected workers of city agencies. By doing so, London officials were prevented from running their checks: in a sting operation, when trying to hail a taxi, they could only see icons of cars navigating nearby, but none of those would ever actually go pick them up. The adopted strategy seemed to serve well its presumed unethical purpose of avoid being ticketed.

Such facts are a blatant proof that ‘cheap and efficient’ does not always mean ‘good on the whole’. Surely, Uber’s handy services have made life much easier (and more affordable) for many Londoners caught up in the capital’s hectic life, but Uber’s failings on many levels cannot be ignored any further. In addition, as TfL pointed out, the company has substantially increased minicab traffic in an already very busy city. Icing on the cake, although not among the reasons for the ban, is Uber’s false classification of the drivers as ‘self-employed’ rather than ‘workers’, a status that would grant them rights to sick and holiday pay, as well as a guarantee of the national minimum wage. If it wishes to keep operating in London, the company will therefore have to quickly abandon its reckless tech ethos.

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