Flouting rules and side-stepping rules

‘In this world of ours we must be kind and courteous to others, if we want to find kindness and courtesy in our own days of trouble.’ If only Pinocchio had heeded the advice much before he axed the cricket, got his wooden legs burnt and failed awfully at harvesting gold by sowing coins.

But Gepetto speaks nonetheless, even if the voice is a whisper and not the wind that howls.

Ride-hailing apps seem to have tucked their feet in a hot stove somewhere since 2017 begun. Fines worth $20 million, sexual harassment whistleblowers, lawsuits over IP theft, illicit or grey software-cheat attempts, twitter ban over supporting immigration-reverse-gear: there is so much that is out there as smoke.

But where is the fire? Nowhere yet, unless we look at some silent cinders that have been flickering since 2010 itself.

Some have dismissed these as wisps of bravado and some have indulged their delight at a new-found chutzpah in a laidback industry. Yes, it’s fun to be the slam-the-door teenager who can walk out of a scolding session or dinner-table argument with guts and stomping feet. But adolescence has to wear out some time. Else, it leads to a nose that no cosmetic surgery can fix.

My way or the sly-way

Companies like Uber and Lyft resembled someone with a lot of sass and steam when they blatantly refused to comply with fingerprint-based background check requirements and simply pulled out of the kerb in Austin. The ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude, however, doesn’t sound so cool when you are stubbornly trying to drive right-side when everyone is following the keep-left pattern. Yet, the hormones have a way of asserting themselves.

2010: After beginning rides in the Bay Area, state regulators ordered them with a “cease and desist” ticket for parking recklessly in this industry without a license. The company in question never stopped providing the service. It simply changed its name.

2012: Minneapolis regulators wanted to impound any vehicles that were plying in illegal mode but the ride-hailing companies turned a deaf ear and kept on.

2014: Nevada had to ban one such company for failing to obey laws around licensing, vehicle inspections and insurance. Virginia did the same with cease-and-desist orders for Uber and Lyft.

2015:  Some $7 million were slapped by a California administrative judge on a company for inadequate information about disabled passengers and accessibility. The company, of course, retorted saying that it was not required to abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act: I am a tech company and not a transportation service. Touche!

2015: In France drivers of an app-run service happened to ask paying passengers to sit in the front seat for pretending as friends and averting authorities.

2016:  New York City saw not only the taxi drivers’ union but also some individual drivers suing an app-major on grounds of “wage theft” i.e. not paying minimum wage or overtime.

2016:  In Europe, a company got a fine mandate of 50,000 for deceptive marketing as a peer-to-peer car-sharing marketplace. A Pop service popped and deflated in France and the Netherlands, thanks to the blatant use of unlicensed drivers.

2016: When two drivers sued an app company in London over pay, treatment, and vacation time for U.K. drivers the judges had to even quote Shakespeare as they took cognizance of drivers’ misery.

2016-17: From unapologetically declining to apply for proper DMV permit pilot program for self-driving vehicles in San Francisco, to relocating cars to Arizona, a company maintained the contention that these vehicles require oversight by a human driver. So no need to follow California’s autonomous-driving rules, it refused to budge.

The list can go on and on. But the wrong ink on a wrong part can’t. Being young can warrant a few indiscretions and the occasional sneaking-out, but not anything that crashes the glass.

Can apps enjoy the luxury of ignoring insurance, licensure and reporting requirements, need for social security contributions, appropriate sick leaves, minimum wages and keep on collecting hefty margins and commissions? Can being under-18 always be a juvenile exit door?

Keep in lane please

It’s funny to hear the answer in many unequivocal accents from all across the world: “Their attitude was, ‘We’re coming whether you like it or not because we think we have the right to,’ They were saying, ‘We’re here and you can’t stop us.’ ” as Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff underscored once.

Or what Judge Anthony Snelson said in the London case:”We cannot help be reminded of Queen Gertrude’s most celebrated line: The lady doth protest too much…It’s unreal to deny that Uber is in business as supplier of transportation services. Simple common sense argues to the contrary.”

In fact, in the utmost unexpected turn of events and twists of irony, an app’s outgoing president himself uttered in a media statement: “The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced here.”

He had company. A director in the self-driving division, a co-director of the internal artificial intelligence research arm, and the vice president of product and growth have all resigned this year.

Such pronounced reflections on the state of affairs echo louder than a CEO’s explanation of ‘principled confrontation’. Even when the company founder utters in media interviews that: it was necessary for his upstart company to break a few rules.

Yes, ‘putting oneself  in the position to ask for something that is already legal, may mean that one will never be able to roll out’, but this is not a joint we are talking about, are we? When a company achieves the affection, the intrigue and the attention of too many stakeholders – drivers, passengers, law-makers – can it afford to ‘rebel’ for the sake of it? Can it put on a ruthless set of headphones and play 12 when it’s old enough to exercise some maturity?

Growing hair and sense back

Looking back at the interesting height-chart, also shows 2013, where California formally legalized and regulated the ride-sharing industry. There was also 2014, when these  companies convinced government officials in both Minneapolis and St. Paul to get approvals for the kind of regulations they wanted.

But memory lines also date way back to the years of Depression in the US where deregulation of taxi services brought upon confusion, chaos, congestion and ushered in strong and swift regulations.

Teen years do end at the Prom-night and real life starts soon afterwards.

2017: Seattle has allowed drivers of a prominent app major (the company is nearing 70 billion in valuation) to unionise after rejecting the company’s reasoning that the local collective bargaining does not apply to its space.

2017 again: The same company showed a streak of the post-18 years as it conducted  proper negotiations with drivers over work and pay conditions in France (albeit after protests where drivers blockaded Paris airports) and might show common sense on a minimum wage bill. A labor law here has also allowed the right to organize when it comes to independent workers for “digital platforms”.

2017: The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) paid attention to misrepresentation of incentives and charged a $20 million penalty from a major app.

The company also met a series of wake-up calls: a former female engineer’s blog post on deeply-dysfunctional management, a board member calling it a company being run by ‘brilliant jerks’ and the president stepping out along with other high-impact exits, like mentioned earlier.

2017: In India, after a massive outcry from drivers and passengers over different issues (exaggerated incentives/viability struggles and surge pricing respectively), app-based cabs faced caps on surge pricing, when a state government laid down a strong set of rules to regulate taxi aggregators and fixing lower and upper limits for surge pricing. Permit-related discrepancies for drivers working with these aggregators were also addressed while police verification of drivers, SMS alert facility, two-way communication system etc. were made mandatory. A lot remains to be sorted but a crucial step has been taken.

Industry RNA and Regulatory DNA, like software updates, constantly react and adapt – at least that’s how it should be. The industry does need laws that align with a new generation, a new set of genes but not at the cost of general safety, common sense and basic courtesy. Old songs can be nostalgic but new ones can be worth a spot in the playlist as well.  Parents and neighbours need to act their age too and chime in with the new times. No one gains when doors replace tables. Definitely not the users who are supposedly being looked after by both the sides.

In fact, the biggest cry for maturity comes when customers stop standing up on social media with an app, a tactic often used by it for pro-app lobbying. The app’s users recently deleted their accounts for siding with some outrageous moves on immigration by President Donald Trump. The CEO had to leave Donald Trump’s business advisory council.

That shows what growing up is: the best way out of a disoriented teenage.

Else, there’s a nose that can keep growing.


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