Big tech vs democracy in London’s Uber ban

The Knowledge: Traditional black cab drivers protest against Uber in London. © Getty

Is it wrong to take an Uber? After years of controversy and growing safety concerns, the ride-sharing app will not have its licence renewed in London. Now, it says it is willing to change.

“Is Uber really going to close?” Pal Singh asked on Friday. “I have bills to pay. I’m almost 61, who is going to give me a job now?”

He is one of 40,000 Uber drivers in the UK’s capital, who take 3.5m Londoners wherever they want to go. Using the app has become as normal as complaining about the tube, or hopping onto an iconic red bus.

But perhaps not for much longer. On Friday, Transport for London (TfL) made a shock announcement: it would not be renewing Uber’s licence at the end of the month.

TfL explained that Uber was “not fit and proper” to work in London for a number of reasons. Firstly, it had been failing to report criminal offences to the police.

Secondly, there were concerns about how its drivers’ medical certificates and criminal records were checked. Finally, TfL said that Uber was using software called Greyball to stop law enforcement from fully accessing the app.

“All companies in London must play by the rules,” said London mayor Sadiq Khan on Friday. “Providing an innovative service is not an excuse for it being unsafe.”

There has been a fierce backlash in defence of Uber in London. Thousands of drivers, 90% of whom are from ethnic minority backgrounds, are now unsure how they will make ends meet. Many women have argued that Uber is the safest option when travelling alone.

As a result, over 600,000 people have now signed Uber’s petition to “save” the company.

The ban is the latest blow in a rough year for Uber. In June, its controversial chief executive, Travis Kalanick, quit after months of legal battles and accusations of sexism. His replacement, Dara Khosrowshahi, told employees on Friday: “There is a high cost to a bad reputation.”

Yesterday Uber said it was willing to negotiate with TfL to get its licence renewed. But is using the service immoral?

Drive on

Yes, insist Uber’s critics. The company’s style — “move fast, think later” — is typical of big tech companies in the 21st century. It grew quickly by not investing time or money into its drivers, and so they are left without benefits such as sick pay. It is a vast, faceless organisation that does its utmost to avoid paying taxes or following local laws. There are plenty of alternatives to Uber; by choosing it you are supporting its terrible way of doing things.

Nonsense, argue its defenders. The company may not be perfect, but you cannot blame people for taking advantage of a cheap taxi service. It is up to Uber to sort its own problems out, something its new boss has promised to do. In the meantime, using Uber helps keep tens of thousands of people employed, and many Londoners have come to rely on it to get them home safe. It is a real shame that TfL is trying to take that away.

You Decide

  1. Should Uber be banned in London?
  2. Is it wrong to give money to a company that you disagree with?

Activities

  1. In groups, create your own imaginary competitor to Uber. Choose a name, logo, and five key principles that your company will stick to.
  2. Class debate: This house believes that everyone should be self-employed.

Some People Say...

“We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber.”

Ex-Uber boss Travis Kalanick

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Uber was originally licensed as a private-hire operater for five years in 2012. It was given a temporary licence earlier this year, while Transport for London considered renewing. That licence ends on September 30th, and on Friday TfL said it would not be renewed. However, Uber can still operate in London until then, and throughout any appeals process. Uber has said it will work with TfL to make any changes.
What do we not know?
Whether Uber will actually stop running in London. The company has refuted the accusations made by TfL; it says its drivers go through the same background checks as black cab drivers, and that it has a good relationship with the Metropolitan Police. Sadiq Khan says he suspects it will be “some time before this situation with Uber fully plays out.”

Word Watch

40,000
This figure, along with the 3.5m users in London, comes from Uber itself. Uber says its drivers are self-employed, although last year a UK court case ruled otherwise.
Transport for London
A non-profit, local government body which runs the transport systems in London.
Criminal offences
According to the police, there were 48 sexual offences involving Uber in the year up to February 2017. Last month, Uber was accused of allowing one of its drivers to strike twice by not reporting an alleged assault on a passenger.
Greyball
According to a New York Times investigation, the software takes users to a fake app when it detects they might be linked to law enforcement or city officials. Uber denies this.
90%
According to The Telegraph.
Safest
This is because Uber gives the identity and contact details of drivers, and allows location tracking.
Legal battles
For example, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is suing Uber for $2.6 billion over alleged stolen self-driving car technology.
Sexism
In February an ex-employee accused the firm of discriminating against its few female engineers.