Why Uber Got Banned from London
As Uber loses a feather in its hat, a look at the cab-hailing company’s murky past and the software it used to circumvent law, sullying its own reputation in the process
After September 30, Uber, the cab-hailing company, lost its licence and was barred from operating in the city of London. The transport regulator, Transport for London (TfL), rejected the application for renewal on the grounds that the tech company has failed to 'play by the rules.' The lack of security due to the failure of the private taxi provider to adhere to the demands of background checks, health check-ups and other such regulations has left the government with no other choice but to ban the company.
The media has viewed this move with doubt and suspicion. News outlets have called it catastrophic, vote-bank pandering—which would effectively leave nearly 40,000 drivers unemployed. The allegation is that the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who appointed the members of the TfL, is trying to appease the black-cab union. The drivers of the quintessential British cabs have a considerable presence in the Labour Party and the transport authority, of which Khan is a member. Apart from its obvious political implications on feasibility and convenience, Uber stands in opposition to the way Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party represent the working class. Right after the verdict, Labour's Shadow Minister John Mcdonnel—in opposition shadows the government—said that Uber is a disgrace. Uber has a sordid history when it comes to rights, amenities offered to their drivers, and providing job security. An essential part of what has come to be known as the 'gig economy,' Uber and what it represents come at the cost of permanent jobs. In addition to the uncertainty that the 'gig economy' brings to the youth finding secure jobs, the way the company has treated those working with it have been deplorable. Labour tribunals in both the United Kingdom and the European Court of Justice are to hear cases on violations of labour laws by the company. A large number of the cases filed against Uber is by drivers working with them.
One argument that is readily thrown around is that the banning of the cab-hailing app comes at the cost of diversity, employment and the opening up of a sector that was long kept in the hands of a few. Through Uber, immigrants and the out of work youth in cities found work, but it came at a cost: not only did the labour market change but also led to the shabby treatment of workers. According to the CEO of the company, Dara Khosrowshahi, the London judgment is because of the bad reputation that it had gained in the past.
The continued usage of 'greyball', a software that the company uses to evade local enforcement agencies, is one of the main reasons as to why Uber has been banned. The software is known to be extremely murky, as an article in the New York Times exposed. On the evidence raked up by the article, the Portland Transport Authority, a city in the North American State of Oregon, released a report on September 15, which found that Uber had used the software to evade inspection and 16 officers in 29 cases. In the report, the transport authority says that the company began operating in Portland illegally and between December 5 and Dec 19 in 2014, it denied rides to its officers.
The software began as a way for developers to beta test updates and improvements in the application in 2014 but was eventually used by the company to identify people working with enforcement agencies and circumvent them all over the world. “The Greyball software program collects data from the Uber application to identify individual public officials, limit their ability to use the service, and circumvent efforts to regulate the ride-hailing service. Uber applied these methods in Portland and in other US cities such as Boston and Las Vegas, and throughout the world in countries including France, Australia, China and South Korea.” The app provides a different skin to the user being ‘greyballed’ who will see a ‘geographically’ fenced area where despite repeated attempts to a book a cab they will remain unsuccessful. But how does Uber find out who the officers are? This is where it gets interesting. Through a combination of geotagging, social media searches, the type of phone being used and credit card history, the software is able to pinpoint enforcement officers and limits their use of the software. Uber has repeatedly said that they did not use Greyball in London, but as the Portland Authority report said, “However, the authorities did not find any evidence of usage after April 2015, saying “[the lack of evidence] does not prove definitively that such tools were not used. It is inherently difficult to prove a negative.” Uber according to them has sullied its own reputation.
Defenders of the cab-hailing app draw comparisons with the public transport system citing the number of incidents of crime between the two. In London, in the years Uber has been running, there have been six incidents as compared to thousands in the underground metro. However, these are at best straw argument because Uber and public transport do not cater to the same social class. While inept security provisions on the part of the government are a concern, the contravention of the law is what gave a lot of weight to the case against Uber.
Right after the decision, the Chief Executive of the company, Dara Khosrowshahi, flew down to London to renegotiate with TfL. Their UK top executive Jo Bertram also quit—reports say that the move had nothing to do with the verdict. Khosrowshahi and other experts are not expecting immediate results, but are not expecting dividends anytime soon. Prime Minister Theresa May has come out in support of Uber, calling the verdict disproportionate. However, Sadiq Khan’s popularity has surged after the verdict with many lauding the decision. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, has said on record that if the company ‘mends its ways’ it could operate in London.
This probably is the worst blow for the Silicon Valley-based company. This year the company is facing the stiffest opposition from all quarters. In Greece, their presence is being questioned as elsewhere: the country is asking for the company to integrate with the existing taxi system. The loss in London is like Uber losing their golden egg, and that perhaps is why Khosrowshahi has issued an apology.