If the government can’t get an Uber ban right, Facebook and Google have nothing to worry about
Just seven days ago, I found myself writing the following sentence in an article you may or may not have read:
“There has been an enormous shift in power over the past decade, and while governments may think they’re only now turning their guns on internet giants to fight for supremacy, the truth is that this battle was fought and lost long before they even realised they were competing.”
Two days later, Transport for London bravely attempted to make me re-examine my assumptions by banning Uber as “not fit and proper to hold a private hire operator licence”. And Uber is relenting! The company sent an open letter apologising for its past conduct and insisting it will do better – surely that’s proof that government still holds all the cards, right?
At the risk of looking like a stubborn fool unable to change his mind, I’m going to say that if anything this experience has actually reinforced my view – albeit with a couple of caveats. Allow me to show my working.
First off, Uber is a super-easy target. Imagine an (incredibly tedious-sounding) game where the aim was to take down bloated tech businesses with questionable business practices and queasy attitudes towards privacy. Uber would be the tutorial level where it’s impossible to lose.
Let me remind you that this is a company where “scandal is common as morning coffee,” and TfL’s main beef is a failure to report alleged sexual assaults. The company is only eight years old and yet in its short life has almost been banned from the iPhone, been accused of stealing driverless technology, made its drivers listen to anti-union propaganda, used software to dodge city officials, had its CEO caught on video shouting at one of his drivers and had to own up to his systemic problems with sexism. In other words, if ever there were a company that has questions to answer over being fit and proper, it’s Uber.
Add to that the fact that this only impacts one city with a population of eight million, with plenty of alternatives for customers to choose from. This should be an easy win. After all, the ban can be appealed, and the expectation is that the company just needs to apologise and promise to improve in order to get its licence back. Playing nicely hasn’t worked, so the government is going in hard ball.
And yet, at the time of writing, 798,000 people have signed a petition calling on Transport for London to relent, and welcome Uber back without any kind of concessions. That’s 789,000 people who value convenience and low prices over public safety and the rule of law. I can’t help but think back to a bit from Jonathan Taplin’s book Move Fast and Break Things: “Google will do whatever it wants without asking permission and the results will be so awesome that nobody will complain.”
Despite this, it seems TfL has won. But it’s the kind of scrappy, unconvincing win that shouldn’t have fans of state intervention chanting Sadiq Khan’s name on the night Tube home.
Just imagine if the government decided that Google or Facebook needed to be brought down a peg or two. These are two services which are far more closely connected to our everyday lives than Uber will ever be. Theoretically, the government knows that it can ban either from operating in the UK. But the government also knows that this would be met first with protests, and then a kicking at the ballot box. The chances of opposition parties sharing the same electorally toxic policy are close to zero, when the benefits of opposing are so obvious.
For all a government huffs and puffs, there’s very little incentive for internet giants to dance to their tune – if you’ll excuse the slightly mixed metaphor. Internet giants have both the wealth and the general good will of the people. Governments have less of both, so we’re left appealing to their better nature to do the right thing.
Let’s hope that Google changing its motto from “Don’t Be Evil” was as innocuous as it claims – because right now, it’s hard to see who would stop them if it’s not.