Monday, September 25, 2017

Regulating Platforms

On Friday, Transport for London (TfL) declared that Uber was not fit and proper to hold a private hire operator licence. Uber's current licence expires next week. However, Uber can continue to operate in London until any appeal processes have been exhausted. (TFL Press Release, 22 September 2017)

By Saturday afternoon, a petition in Uber's favour had raised half a million signatures. Uber seems to put more energy into campaigning against evil regulators than into operating within the regulations, and was evidently already prepared for this fight. (You don't send out messages to millions of customers at the drop of a hat without a bit of forward planning.) As Emine Saner writes,
"Calling for better legislation certainly is not as exciting as a glossy app, or whipped-up social media reaction, but it may make your trip home safer – and would be a better use of online petitions."

The protests follow a number of well-worn arguments
  • Many users of the Uber service (especially young women) have become dependent on a cheap, convenient and supposedly safer alternative to public transport and expensive taxis.
  • Many drivers have borrowed heavily to invest in the Uber business model, and fear being thrown into penury.
  • This is an anti-competitive and technologically backward move, prompted by entrenched interests. And as TfL is itself a transport operator, it is not appropriate that TfL should regulate its competitors.

None of these arguments can be taken completely at face value.

  • It is true that many women believe the Uber model is safer than the alternatives; however, some women have been raped, and other women have had extremely scary experiences. Uber is accused of failing to carry out proper checks, and failing to report serious incidents.
  • Uber service is cheap not only because it cuts costs and exploits its drivers, but also because it is subsidized by Uber investors. This looks suspiciously like predatory pricing rather than fair competition. Analysts such as Izabella Kaminska argue that Uber will only become profitable when it has driven its competitors out of business, at which point it will be able to increase its prices. Like much of Silicon Valley, it appears to operate according to the Peter Thiel anti-competition playbook. Even Steve Bannon has been heard arguing for closer regulation of what are effectively monopoly platforms.
  • Technology companies such as Uber sometimes describe themselves as "disruptive". While it is true that disruptions sometimes yield socioeconomic benefits, the belief that disruption is always good for competition is based on ideology rather than evidence. Regulation is generally opposed to disruption.
  • And as Stephen Bush points out, it's not as a digital start-up company that Uber has fallen foul of regulations, but as an old fashioned minicab operator. (As John Bull explains, Uber London is just a minicab company; the app is operated by Uber BV in the Netherlands. This corporate separation helps Uber to finesse both regulation and tax.) Persuading politicians and economists to see Uber as a shining example of technological progress is just "a very, very clever marketing trick".

I'm quoting Steve Bannon because I'm just amazed to find something I agree with him about.  Regulating platforms is not the same as regulating regular companies, and the general art of regulation needs a kick up the proverbial. However, that is no reason to diss the current regulations or regulators, who are doing the best they can with insufficient regulatory mechanisms and resources. Experience from other cities shows that if Uber can't get its act together, there are plenty others that can.



John Bull, Understanding Uber: It’s Not About The App (Reconnections 25 September 2017)

Stephen Bush, The right are defending Uber, because they don't really understand it (New Statesman 22 September 2017)

Martin Farrer, Nadia Khomami et al, More than 500,000 sign petition to save Uber as firm fights London ban (Guardian 23 September 2017)

Ryan Grim, Steve Bannon Wants Facebook and Google Regulated Like Utilities (The Intercept, 27 July 2017)

Hubert Horan, Will the Growth of Uber Increase Economic Welfare? (September 14, 2017)

Izabella Kaminska. For references see earlier post Uber Mathematics 2 (December 2016)

Sam Levine,'There is life after Uber': what happens when cities ban the service? (Guardian 23 September 2017)

Jason Murugesu, Night bus or black cab - what will save stranded Londoners post-Uber? (New Statesman 22 September 2017)

Andrew Orlowski, Why Uber isn't the poster child for capitalism you wanted (The Register, 26 September 2017)

Emine Saner, Will the end of Uber in London make women more or less safe? (Guardian, 25 September 2017)


Related posts (with further references): Platform, Regulation, Uber

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