Why it’s a mistake to think of Uber as a tech company
The trial of Shiv Kumar Yadav, a taxi driver who allegedly raped a female passenger, has started in Delhi. The passenger had booked Yadav’s taxi using the popular Uber taxi booking app. But even as the alleged rape charges were leveled in Delhi, the West Bengal government police commissioner in the city of Bidhannagar passed an ordinance to regulate Uber as a tech company instead of a taxi service; a very happy blog post on Uber’s website hails this decision as “the regulations are well done”
Wherever it goes, Uber is doing its best to be seen as a tech company, not a taxi company. Indeed, taxi licenses are strictly regulated around the world. In Delhi, for example, the 11-page license application clearly dictates the requirements that all taxis in the fleet must meet and holds the licensee accountable for any shortcomings. The cost of a New York taxi medallion (a permit that allows you to use your vehicle as a taxi – every taxi in New York must have a medallion) can be as high as $1 million. In the US, Uber drivers don’t need taxi medallions – they just log into an app. It’s very easy to disrupt outdated business models when you simply ignore all the rules and regulations they have to comply with, just because you find them impractical. What Uber considers a “disruption”, others call it breaking the law.
This announcement from Kolkata comes at a time when governments and courts are cracking down on Uber around the world. Delhi’s transport department has also created new rules for taxi operators, but looking at the blog, it’s clear the company wants a much more lenient policy framework. The blog reads:
Yesterday was a historic day for runners and drivers in the Kolkata area. The West Bengal Government Commissioner of Police, City of Bidhannagar, which includes Technology Hub and Kolkata Airport, has passed an Ordinance regulating On-demand Transportation Technology Aggregators as Technology Companies in accordance with the Information Technology Act 2000.
By contrast, the Delhi government now wants all taxi operators, including aggregators such as Uber, to have their taxi fleets running on clean fuels and equipped with tracking devices and emergency buttons.
“The license holder must ensure that a panic button is installed in the radio taxi so that in the event of distress, the signal is transmitted to the license holder’s control center and from the latter to the nearest police station/police control room,” the transport from Delhi said. office said on its website. Uber (and other taxi aggregators) like Ola said they would also comply with the new regulations, although an Uber spokesperson told Quartz “We are not a radio taxi company, so the Ministry of Transport amendments to the radio taxi system does not help We serve our passengers and drivers in Delhi Nor does it accurately reflect the main role the Information Act 2000 plays in regulation intermediaries like Uber.
What these rules essentially do is force Uber to deliver on the promises it makes on its website and apps — the promise of a safe and efficient system for connecting to taxis. Because if Uber is just an aggregator, how can it claim security? Amazon and Flipkart guarantee the safety of their marketplaces by reimbursing us and arranging a quick return if there is even a minor problem with the product you buy. Uber, on the other hand, seems to want to wash its hands of any issues, no matter how big.
The problem is that for most of us, the distinction between market and supplier is not always clear. To a user, Uber doesn’t look like a technology company, but a taxi service. When a seller on Snapdeal shipped soap instead of a smartphone, people tweeted that the marketplace was cheating them, not an unknown seller. When the alleged rape happened, we asked Uber why they didn’t check the driver.
Uber argues that the taxis it connects are licensed taxis that were licensed to operate anyway. But Uber has also made it much easier to hire a cab. Its cleverly designed website touts security features – but it still wants to be regulated only under India’s IT law, as a tech company and not a taxi company. The IT law does not mention anything concerning the safety of taxis. Why would it be?
Were some laws in Delhi lagging behind when it came to dealing with companies like Ola and Uber? Yes. But to say that these companies don’t operate taxi fleets is dishonest at best, and deliberately misleading at worst.
Despite all their problems, radio taxi fleets like Meru and Mega have made it easy to get a taxi and have taken some measure and responsibility for customer safety. Uber also says it is doing everything in its power to keep its customers safe. But if this blog post is any indication, Uber would really like it not to be liable if something goes wrong.
And that’s the fundamental problem with viewing Uber as a technology company. A software product is very different from a car you get into. If you fight with a deranged user on Twitter, you’re probably (hopefully) not in danger of getting stabbed. In a taxi, this is no longer the case.
Uber is an app, but its operations are not in the virtual world. In this case at least, the Kolkata Police should remove a page from the book of the Delhi Transport Department.