Leading article

The Uber scandal highlights big tech’s big failure

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

A few years ago the Conservatives were excited about the march of the tech giants. Uber was offering an alternative to black cabs at a far lower cost, and Airbnb enabled homeowners to rent out a spare room to tourists at a fraction of the rate charged by hotels. Politicians were no longer dependent on traditional media but could reach the public via social networks, and there seemed to be an explosion of entrepreneurs, empowered by the new tech, taking on vested interests. The Tories intended to be part of this revolution.

Their enthusiasm for people power was not to last. The government now plans to give regional mayors the power to curb Airbnb to protect the hotel industry (and the government tax base). The Online Safety Bill proposes an era of censorship in which social media giants would be heavily fined if they publish what ministers define as ‘harmful’ content. Uber has been steadily regulated so its prices have shot up while its reliability has collapsed. The battle for liberty is being lost, and the Tory party is part of the problem.

Tech firms must share the blame. They grew too quickly and used behind-closed-doors lobbying techniques which ultimately proved ineffective. Facebook, YouTube et al said little when Nadine Dorries’s appalling legislation proposed turning them into unpaid government censors. Indeed they seemed almost happy to collaborate, so as to cut smaller operators out of the market.

This week, due to a document leak, we have learned more about Uber’s lobbying techniques. We have seen how politicians worldwide were dazzled by lucrative campaign donations, side-hustles for families and friends and big consultancy contracts for their post-political careers. At first it seemed to work. A clearly starstruck Emmanuel Macron, then still merely France’s finance minister, allowed Uber’s officials to virtually rewrite the country’s transport rules to accommodate its fleets of Toyota Priuses. Uber managers were instructed to hit a ‘kill switch’ to hide data whenever regulators or police threatened to seize it. Money was routed through tax havens to reduce the company’s bills. Uber’s lobbyists, many of them drafted in from Barack Obama’s slick campaign team, openly boasted about how the company was built on tearing up labour laws and suppressing dissent.

Uber grew via backroom deals with public officials when it ought to have campaigned in the open about what it offered the public: safe journeys at a lower cost with far greater transparency.

It was always naive to assume that digital advances would necessarily move the world in a more liberal, democratic direction. The Chinese government has shown how the big state can suborn big tech. Beijing pioneered the censorship-by-proxy model which the Online Safety Bill could bring to the UK in a matter of weeks. The tech giants should be standing up for free markets and for free speech, openly and definitively.

In truth, though Uber was disruptive it had a perfectly respectable case to make in defence of breaking up one of the most restrictive industries in the world. Before it arrived on the scene, it was virtually impossible to get a cab in Paris. A report in 2000 found the city had fewer taxis than it did in 1920. In London, the black cabbies kept an iron grip on the trade, charging largely unaffordable prices and keeping out any competition. Many women on ordinary wages had to resort to taking unlicensed minicabs to get home after the Tube closed at night.

Instead of bribes and deals behind closed doors, why didn’t Uber openly make the moral case for operating the way it did? Perhaps Silicon Valley has now come to believe that the game is up – and that its financial future lies in putting its often hegemonic power at the disposal of politicians. In a leadership race which has focused on the culture wars and the importance of uncensored speech, most candidates remain depressingly silent about what they would do about the bill that threatens free speech most. Among the Tory contenders, only Kemi Badenoch is openly opposing it.

Even now, big tech has the chance to come clean about the censorship that will inevitably follow if the Online Safety Bill goes ahead. Airbnb should say what’s at stake – for hosts, guests and tourism. Amazon has opened up industries to micro-entrepreneurs and revolutionised home delivery – it should speak up about the consequences for everyone if it’s regulated out of existence. Google should explain how its revolutionary search engine and its maps increase freedom and choice.

In the end it’s not President Macron or London mayor Sadiq Khan who Uber needed to persuade of its case, but the ordinary voters in Paris or London. The public needs to understand the way that heavy-handed rules and regulations can threaten their freedom and their way of life.

The real lesson of the Uber scandal is that backdoor lobbying doesn’t work. Only making a robust case for freedom and choice is effective in the long run. As the Tories consider their future, they should also reflect on this malicious trend – and what can be done to address it.

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