Uber in London is no more. Twitter is on fire, the press are all over it. The Evening Standard led with Uber and Out, and hot takes abounded, with one particularly spicy moment when Tory MPs started predicting a mass tech exodus from London. We were all going to have to make fire by rubbing sticks together and start hunting the deer that would come to live in our post-civilisation hellscape. (God, I wish I’d come up with Uber and Out before the Evening Standard. For me, being out-punned hurts at the best of times, and that’s before you the factor in the salt bath that is being beaten at my own game by George Osborne. I mean, he’s many things, but he doesn’t strike you as a master punner, does he?)
So, is this good or bad? Well, if you’re a student, it’s almost certainly bad. Night buses and tubes can be equally as dangerous as an Uber, and there’s an increase in reported sex crime on TfL services. (It’s probably worth considering two key factors though, in that it’s likely that people feel more empowered to report crimes, and also most crimes happen during rush hour, not at night.)
But a whole bunch of things are beneficial to students, while being bad policy ideas on the whole – state-subsidised Jagerbombs for students would make my Monday evenings at Drapers much better, while being economically disasterous – and I’ll admit I find it odd to see people tweet about communism one minute, then suddenly spouting lines that sound like they’re ripped straight from Atlas Shrugged the minute they might have to get a night bus. Overall, this is likely a storm in a teacup, and also probably not a bad thing.
So why did Uber lose their licence to operate? TfL says these reasons:
- Its approach to reporting serious criminal offences.
- Its approach to how medical certificates are obtained.
- Its approach to how Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks are obtained.
- Its approach to explaining the use of Greyball in London – software that could be used to block regulatory bodies from gaining full access to the app and prevent officials from undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties.
Let’s look at these. The first is the one most talked about, and one that is difficult to prove, but on the whole, if a regulatory body says that a company has a negative approach to reporting ‘serious criminal offences’ – and let’s be real, this is likely to mean ‘violence against women’ in practice – I’m inclined to believe them, and thus inclined to be very much okay with them being smacked about the face and neck with a big regulation stick. 4 seems to imply that Uber has actively hampered authorities in terms of their ability to do their job of checking and regulation the service, not to mention the bit about ‘law enforcement’ which again 2 and 3 are quite interesting, insofar as Uber does actually have its drivers DBS checked. However, they were mostly checked through a third party app, Onfido. But, plot twist, TfL changed its policy around DBS checks, preferring to use its own contractor, GBGroup, and not third parties like Onfido. 13,000 drivers needed new checks as a result. Now, for a company like Uber, it is simply Not Hard to comply with this. But there’s an underlying element to 2, 3, and 4, which is ‘there are rules, and you have to take them seriously if you want to operate here.’ And this is, I think, the main point.
Uber has basically spent years blowing raspberries at regulators and insisting that they shouldn’t have to comply to basic regulation because, they’re a Cool Hip Tech Company, don’t you know? Why should they have to comply with what the squares want? This is the argument put forth by half of Twitter – TfL doesn’t ‘get it’, and Uber is a really useful service that millennials and underpaid workers need. The problem with this is that actually ‘our service is so good it doesn’t need regulation’ is actually a really shitty argument. Firstly because if your service is good, people will use it en masse, and that means that it needs more regulation, not less – or at least, to be taken more seriously by the state. And that’s what TfL is doing – it’s recognising that Uber is a serious player in the transport sector, and accordingly treating it as such, by not letting it get away with abuse of regulation. Secondly, the fact is, it’s the job of regulators to, well, regulate. I don’t fancy living in Bioshock, regardless of the weird willingness of millennials to embrace full-blooded libertarianism when faced with (potentially) paying a couple quid extra to get home.
That word – potentially – is also crucial. Because Uber will still operate in London, likely for a long time. This whole thing is best read as a game of chicken. TfL keeps threatening Uber with action if it doesn’t comply with guidelines. Uber keeps saying ‘But bro’ and assuming that TfL will back down rather than take on a massively popular service that has, unquestionably, made getting around London easier. TfL has said ‘Alright then. Fuck off.’ However, the reading of this as a game of chicken leads to the realisation that Uber will continue. The decision won’t change anything for the average Uber-user. The show will go on for a while longer, and the odds of job losses are somewhat minimal, as Uber has a chance to appeal – and that appeal is vastly more likely to be successful if the firm actually addresses some of the reasons why it lost its licence. What this whole brouhaha has actually been about is TfL proving that it will not back down, and is not afraid to come down on badly behaved companies who don’t toe the regulatory line. In other words, TfL has proved that its rules actually mean something and that it will do its job. And when you put it like that, the Uber ban doesn’t seem so terrifying.