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Raj Dhunna / © Culture Trip
Raj Dhunna / © Culture Trip
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What the Uber Ban Says About London's Tech Culture

Picture of Claire Lancaster
Tech & Entrepreneurship Editor
Updated: 7 June 2018
In the days following TfL’s decision to deny Uber a London operating license, the move has dominated dinner party conversation across the capital.

‘This is horrible’, some bemoan. ‘How will I get home after a night out? How does waiting for a bus or walking to the Tube in the middle of the night help make London safe? What will the 40,000 Uber drivers do for work now? What about the outer Boroughs, where black cabs aren’t available and are hesitant to drive? Has the government bowed to pressure from the black cab industry? Isn’t London open for innovation?’

‘Good riddance’, declare others. ‘The company abuses its drivers, denying them workers’ rights like paid sick leave or holiday. It selectively decides what to crimes to report based on reputational risk. Its drivers aren’t being properly screened, and commit sexual assaults. The brand is a representative of its sexist internal culture. Its using greyball tech to evade regulators. We won’t stand for this lack of corporate responsibility.’

On both sides, many acknowledge that something will fill the app-sized gap if Uber is truly taken off the streets. The company, which currently serves some 3.5 million Londoners, already has competitors including Taxify, myTaxi and Gett. US-based competitor Lyft, which reportedly met with TfL five times in the run-up to the Uber decision, has also recently entered the London market.

RajDhunna-UberBan
Raj Dhunna / | © Culture Trip

For gig economy drivers, the rise of alternative apps is unlikely to lead to an improvement in working conditions. It’s doubtful that consumers will be better served. History suggests that the most likely scenario is for Uber to accommodate to the government’s demands and continue operating. Which is exactly what TfL’s decision was intended to achieve.

The Uber ban isn’t about a platform – it’s about culture.

Refusing to renew Uber’s London licence is the latest – and boldest – move in a war between regulators and Silicon Valley-style disruptors that’s raging on both sides of the Atlantic.

In both markets, the public tide is turning against monied and male-dominated tech giants. The reputation of the industry is in freefall. Accusations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination are overwhelming. The personal histories of one-time heroes like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are being rewritten from startup superstars to public villains. Venture capitalists and angel investors, once hailed for supporting innovation and ambitious small businesses, are now vilified as too rich, powerful and in need of stricter regulation.

In the US, pundits on both sides of the political spectrum have criticised the unregulated freedom of Silicon Valley. Liberals, from Bernie Sanders to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, warn about monopolies and antitrust violations. Conservatives, including ex-Trump advisor and right-wing commentator Steve Bannon, claim that Facebook and Google should be regulated like ‘public utilities’. In practice, the tech giants chug along, largely unchecked.

In the UK, many Silicon Roundabout innovators look longingly at the bright lights and eye-watering IPOs coming out of their Californian equivalent. But, at least for now, the government has indicated its preference for regulation over at-all-costs innovation. For private investors, and now much of the public, it’s an unpopular choice. But it’s the right one.

With the Uber decision, Mayor Kahn and TfL are playing hardball with a corporate tech giant in an effort to regulate and protect consumers. Londoners aren’t being robbed of choice. We’re being given the opportunity to build something better.

In a staff email sent earlier this week, Uber’s new chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, wrote: ‘The truth is that there is a high cost to a bad reputation.’ He called for a period of ‘self-reflection’ for the company.

Whether Khosrowshahi’s statement is corporate posturing or heartfelt, TfL has played a role in forcing his hand. London should be proud.