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Business News/ Opinion / If you don’t like Uber right now, don’t worry, you soon will
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If you don’t like Uber right now, don’t worry, you soon will

Uber may be banned now, but it will be back irrespective of how the issue of women safety plays out

As we debate passenger safety in the context of app-based taxi services, it is as absurd to expect Uber to invest in passenger safety as it is to expect Amazon to enforce literary standards in the novels it sells. Photo: AFPPremium
As we debate passenger safety in the context of app-based taxi services, it is as absurd to expect Uber to invest in passenger safety as it is to expect Amazon to enforce literary standards in the novels it sells. Photo: AFP

Nowadays, every time an incident of rape becomes a national issue—not every such incident does, by the way—the reactions are so predictable that they seem almost scripted. Of course, no single individual or agency is sitting somewhere dictating the terms of the national discourse. Yet it follows the same formula.

This formula has two elements: one, it frames rape as an extraordinary event that is somehow external to the system of the day-to-day; and two, it defines rape as an issue of security/safety/policing. It is my contention that such pre-fabricated chatter cannot offer solutions—not that it seriously intends to—because it is not analysis but ideology that is at play.

For a less obfuscatory analysis of the alleged incident of rape involving the Uber driver, we must approach it not as an extraordinary event but as an integral part of the systemic totality we have embraced. This is a totality constituted by some of our most cherished values—technophilia, the free market, innovation, deregulation, incentive-based management, minimum government, and democracy. All these are values that are beyond the pale of interrogation because they underpin our emotional and political investments and shape our identities. Which is why ideology surfaces to protect them.

In the current instance, the ideological fetish is women safety: so long as women safety is secured, without rocking the systemic boat, everything will be fine. Of course, this is a fantasy. But we need to indulge in it collectively so that we don’t have to confront the truth—that is the function of ideology.

Before Uber came to Delhi

To begin with, we all know by now that Uber has been operating illegally in Delhi. In itself, this is not a deviance specifically attributable to India’s lax and/or corrupt enforcement regime. On the contrary, it is the norm so far as Uber’s entry into new markets is concerned.

In many of the markets where it operates, Uber’s modus operandi was to launch by ignoring existing laws, then suffer a ban or a fine, and eventually extract from the local administration a new regulatory regime that favours it over legacy taxi companies. Its chief executive Travis Kalanick calls this approach “principled confrontation"—a sort of libertarian, entrepreneurial version of civil disobedience that Ayn Rand would have approved.

A critical element of this so-called disruptive business model is to derive competitive advantage by externalizing all the business costs that a legacy taxi service provider normally has to bear—from local service tax, to driver wages and/or a union, commercial liability insurance, licensing charges, the cost of buying/owning/managing/monitoring a fleet of taxis, training drivers, etc.

Considered in purely technological terms, the Uber app is a real beauty, as this simple driver training video demonstrates. You could even call it, with ample justification, empowering, for it basically enables anyone to start his or her own business.

If you have a commercial driving license and a car, and can provide documentation that shows you’ve undergone a background check, you are ready to become an Uber driver. That is how Shiv Kumar Yadav became one. And all the drivers working for Uber are encouraged to see themselves not as drivers but as small entrepreneurs, which they are.

That is presumably how Yadav also saw himself—as an independent entrepreneur who was a contractor for Uber, nothing more. Because he was definitely not an employee, his mindset, too, was evidently not that of an employee accountable for his on-duty behaviour to a superior in a company. But would the average Uber user—who comes to the service on a wave of hype about its safety and luxury—know this? As a matter of fact, in Delhi, Uber cabs—unlike its legacy radio taxi competitors—do not even have a GPS as is legally mandatory, relying instead on a dashboard-mounted iPhone.

So, if Uber has been banned in Delhi, it is for operating in violation of the law—not because of the alleged rape. Yes, the Gurgaon incident was the trigger. But it was not the rationale for the ban, as is being misleadingly suggested by those asking if the Delhi government reacted in a “knee-jerk manner" in banning Uber. This becomes clear when we consider the fact that it wasn’t only Uber but all app-based cab services—such as Ola, Quick Cabs, TaxiForSure, etc—that have been banned.

Secondly, taxi services have been operating in Delhi for several years now. And so have rapists. But this is the first reported incident of a driver of a taxi service sexually assaulting a passenger. The driver happened to be working for Uber—not any of the other brands.

A natural thing to do then, given the circumstances, would be to focus not only on generic issues of women safety but also the track record of this specific service provider. This track record, it turns out, is not pretty. The 27-year-old MNC employee assaulted in Gurgaon is one more in a long list of passengers victimized by Uber drivers in other markets—markets with presumably more stringent background checks of drivers than what Uber managed in Delhi. And yet, one can safely assume that Uber is here to stay.

It may be banned now. But it will be back irrespective of how the issue of women safety plays out. And this only partly has to do with the quantum of global capital riding on Uber. The real reason why Uber is guaranteed to be back on Delhi roads is structural.

What kind of animal is it?

What exactly is Uber? It is a San Francisco-based American firm, valued at $18.2 billion, currently offering its services in 51 countries and over 200 cities. Its investors include the who’s who of the global angel investing aristocracy, from Google Ventures, Jeff Bezos, Blackrock, Benchmark, Goldman Sachs, Shervin Pishevar, Naval Ravikant and Menlo Ventures, to Ashton Kutcher.

This company’s visible, tangible product is branded taxi-rides. Its competitors are all branded or unbranded taxi-ride providers. But from the beginning, Uber has been anxious to let everyone know that it is a tech company and not a transportation company. It holds that it is merely a “platform" that connects riders to drivers or “Transportation Providers", as they are referred to in the terms of service contract that you automatically enter into if you use its service.

Presenting itself as a tech company is not some narcissistic quirk. It is the heart of the disruptive legal innovation that, in combination with the software innovation that is the Uber app, liberates it from having to comply with all the regulatory requirements that a transportation company typically has to comply with.

If we, as passengers and regulators, agree to consider Uber as a tech company, which is what its contract with both drivers and riders make it out to be, then we must also agree to its demand—which it has repeated, and successfully enforced, in city after city around the world—that it should be treated no different from any Internet service provider that enables consumers to connect with content providers but cannot be held responsible or liable in case a website uploads content that is offensive or defamatory or false.

Much like a tech evangelist might do, Uber conceives of the road as nothing more than an analog version of the information superhighway that is the Internet. There are two problems with this conception though. Firstly, passengers are not quite bytes of data—they are that, too, of course, but they are not only that, at least not as yet. Secondly, the roads of the National Capital Region (NCR) can be physically injurious in ways that the pathways of the World Wide Web cannot.

So for Uber—in the light of the story it tells about itself—what are you when you log into its app? A customer? Only if a blog on a website is a customer—an absurd idea. A user? Well, only in the so-called real world. But remember, for the Uber platform—which is all that it claims to be, a platform—the real world is nothing but a vast constellation of analog apps that feeds a key resource—data—into the network of operating systems, computing devices, and software programmes that not only increasingly define our sense of the real, but also transform our objective status vis-à-vis the digital.

In the world that constitutes the REAL for Uber, your status is exactly the same as that of an article uploaded into or downloaded from a website: you are a commodity whose function is simply to be processed for value by the Uber app, which controls the entire operation from beginning to end. Indeed, in the words of Sarah Lacey, the founder and editor-in-chief of Pando Daily and one of Uber’s most outspoken critics, both the passenger and the driver are “disposable commodities" so far as Uber is concerned.

Getting real about going digital

So, as we debate passenger safety in the context of app-based taxi services, it is as absurd to expect Uber to invest in passenger safety as it is to expect Amazon to enforce literary standards in the novels it sells. If literary value is the look-out of the reader and the publisher, mutatis mutandis, passenger safety is obviously the look-out of the passenger and the taxi service provider.

This is precisely what Uber’s terms of service also states: “Uber does not guarantee the suitability, safety or ability of third-party providers. It is solely your responsibility to determine if a third-party provider will meet your needs and expectations…By using the services, you acknowledge that you may be exposed to situations involving third-party providers that are potentially unsafe…".

Notwithstanding all the politically correct noises it makes about doing background checks of drivers, etc, and notwithstanding its advertised claims of offering a safe ride, Uber does not take legal responsibility for your safety. If, say, due to a faulty background check, you happen to board a cab driven by a psychopathic rapist, it’s your problem, not Uber’s. This does not mean that Uber is cheating—it is not, because it states the terms of service explicitly and upfront.

Nor does this mean that Uber is unscrupulous or callous enough to employ drivers without proper background checks, as its innumerable critics have argued. On the contrary, the background and character of its drivers is no more Uber’s responsibility than the background and character of its sellers is eBay’s responsibility—this is the animating logic of Uber. You can either like it or rage against it or be in denial about it. But you cannot have Uber without it.

Much as letters have become slow mail, books have become dead-tree versions of content, and meeting people has become meatspace socializing (as opposed to electronic socializing, which is the norm that dominates our social life), Uber is redefining transportation in digital terms. A necessary effect of this cause—digital innovation dictating analog decision-making—is that human beings will have no option but to become subjects (in the political sense) of the digital free market economy. In other words, the individual destinies of bytes of data—which is the limit of the ontological claims that you or I can make in the digital domain—are less important than their seamless and ceaseless flow.

Getting back to the issue of the alleged rape in Gurgaon, those who formulate the problem as one of safety should know what kind of a solution that formulation invites: since human drivers are unpredictable, and cannot be reliably programmed not to rape, let us, for the sake of women safety, make human drivers redundant by replacing them with self-driving cars.

In fact, Kalanick has already announced his intention to replace human-driven cars with self-driving cars, which also explains Google’s interest in Uber.

Uber is part of the future we are marching towards. It is a part of the unfolding structural logic at the heart of the technology-driven, innovation-led, free market capitalism that all of us love. That is why every time this structure demands a steep price, we have been ready to pay it—we are ready to dilute our environment regulations to accommodate it, we are ready to dilute our land acquisition laws to accommodate it, we want a more flexible labour regime to accommodate it. Of course, in the story we tell ourselves, no human beings get hurt in these dilutions.

When we are ready to do so much in other spheres of the totality, are we seriously going to turn around and impose our anachronistic transportation regulations on Uber for reasons of women safety? Are we? We all know the answer to this.

Simply put, Uber is what we all want. This is the reason a four-year-old Uber has a market cap greater than decades-old behemoths such as Sony, Mitsubishi, Fiat or Hyatt; it is why it ranks second, after Facebook, in the list of the highest valued venture-backed companies.

If Uber was “just an app" or “just a platform", it wouldn’t be so valuable. But given that it is, and given that the totality which Uber embodies is not open to question, all we can do is content ourselves with outraging comfortably on one narrow aspect of the totality: women safety. Once the outrage dies down, an appropriate way shall be found to rehabilitate Uber in Delhi. As 200 other cities have already done.

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Updated: 10 Dec 2014, 01:48 PM IST
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