Caution, Uber (fur alles Uber users, eh?)

There is a controversy in Canada about the ‘taxi service’ Uber. I use quotes because part of Uber’s policy is to avoid being regulated as a taxi service, claiming it is only a technology company.

For those who’ve never heard of Uber, here’s a quick list:

  • Clients needing a ride use a smartphone app to request an Uber ‘taxi’.
  • Uber co-ordinates which Uber provider vehicle is alerted to the request.
  • Vehicle finds client and delivers ride.
  • Client has already agreed to pay by credit card. (I will get to this ‘agreement’ later.)

So far, so good. What’s the problem, then? another quick list:

  • Uber ‘surcharges’ during busy times. One report in the Toronto Star claimed an overcharge of one hundred dollars on a six-minute ride on Hallowe’en.
  • Uber tracks every vehicle provider.
  • Uber tracks every Uber client.
  • Uber can put this all together in ‘interesting’ ways.

Now for some observations.

Here is a web page allowing a new Uber provider to sign up to make money as a taxi-like service. I direct those who click through to look at the left hand side: these Uber drivers are using ordinary vehicles and ordinary drivers’ licenses. I suspect their auto insurance is also ordinary and will not cover any injury or damage incurred while using the vehicle for commercial purposes. (I am certain that my own automobile insurance is quite clear on this point. I would not be covered. Period.)

Here is a web page for Uber’s client agreement. I will copy a few lines here just in case you don’t have the time to read all this – as I suspect many cab-calling smartphone customers might not, eh? So, here is one part I would like to dwell on:

Uber reserves the right to establish, remove and/or revise Charges for any or all aspects of the Services at any time in Uber’s sole discretion. Further, you acknowledge and agree that Charges applicable in certain geographical areas may increase substantially during times of high demand of the Services. Uber will use reasonable efforts to inform you of Charges that may apply, provided that you will be responsible for Charges incurred under your Account regardless of your awareness of such Charges or the amounts thereof. Uber may from time to time provide certain users with promotional offers and discounts that may result in different Charges for the same or similar Services, and you agree that such promotional offers and discounts, unless also made available to you, shall have no bearing on your use of the Services or the Charges applied to you. You may elect to cancel your request for Services from a Third Party Provider at any time prior to such Third Party Provider’s arrival, in which case you may be charged a cancellation fee.

That covers surcharges, now for tracking and privacy.

Here is a web page showing that a Uber executive is being investigated for tracking a reporter. The executive was Josh Mohrer, and the journalist was Johana Bhuiyan. You will find these words there:

When she arrived, Mohrer was waiting for her.¬†Holding his iPhone, he said: “There you are. I was tracking you.”

Even better, you will find these words:

Sims says three years ago he was taking an Uber SUV through Manhattan when an acquaintance texted and asked whether he was in an Uber vehicle at 33th and 5th. He confirmed that he was, and the acquaintance later revealed she was at an Uber Chicago launch, and at the party Uber had a screen showing where certain people in New York were riding around in Uber vehicles.

If you don’t think that’s intrusive enough, consider the data analysis to provide a list of “Rides of Glory” as Uber called them. Roughly, if the same person took a Uber ride between ten p.m. and four a.m. and then some four to eight hours later took another Uber ride from within one/tenth of a mile of the first drop-off, that was considered to be a “Ride of Glory.” Tellingly, these rides become less frequent around Valentine’s Day.

What’s scary about this is that BuzzFeed claims that a reporter was foolish enough to claim Uber was working with escort services.

Here is one quote form the Oregoninan on this:

Well, isn’t that interesting? This is an old Uber blog post but it is newly chilling in the wake of recent comments made by company executive Emil Michael. Michael, talking at a New York City dinner of movers and shakers, was mad at PandoDaily journalist Sarah Lacy, who has reported on Uber doing business with an escort service. Lacy has called Uber misogynistic.

Farther on, you will read this:

Michael’s comments: “Over dinner, he outlined the notion of spending ‘a million dollars’ to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into ‘your personal lives, your families,‘ and give the media a taste of its own medicine.”

Finally, back to Rides of Glory:

Uber charts “Rides of Glory” by neighborhood and day of the week. In that 2012 blog post, it tries to soothe any privacy worries we might have by mentioning in passing that all of its RoG work is done “blind.” Do you believe them? Neither will the divorce lawyer who knows his client’s spouse uses Uber.

The above three quotes can be found on this web page.

Get to the point, you say. OK, let me try.

In Toronto, the argument is partly that Uber is trying to out-skip the normal taxi regulations by claiming not to provide taxi service. While this is literally true, it is enabling competition to ordinary taxi service. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and squats like a duck, it probably is equivalent to a duck.

In Toronto, the argument is partly that the normal taxi service (a source of continuing bickering, what with Ambassador licenses and more powerful sellable licenses and the city trying to make the latter as limp as the former) is defending itself as best it can against an opponent it does not know how to defeat.

In Toronto, privacy and safety in taxicabs and limo services is pretty good. Licensing creates trackability. Uber does track, but only in their favour. Uber does surcharge (overcharge, imho) whenever it can get away with it. Uber appears to be using some non-professional drivers who may have inadequate or self-invalidated insurance.

The city of Toronto is following a few other cities in trying to stop Uber. You can read about this here.

Now for the dumb question. What do you think will happen?

Toronto has, imho, been trying to warp or break the taxicab ‘monopoly’ in various ways. Taxicab owners and drivers have been organizing to prevent this. Now Uber comes in with another paradigm which could allow the following:

  • amateurs drive Uber-directed fare rides.
  • licensed professional drivers (limo service, for example) drive Uber-directed fare rides.
  • Real taxi drivers with their own taxicabs break away from the owner of the cab license they are using, and use Uber to get fares.

All of these would help break the existing monopoly of the owners of the non-ambassador taxi licenses. (This would mean, if you meant to sell that license as your retirement income, you’re going to be impoverished. Politicians don’t seem to care about widows of taxi license owners. Odd.)

Our new Mayor, John Tory, is pro-Uber. Our city council must be anti-Uber. John Tory has been known to change his mind should it be politically convenient to do so.

Again, what do you think will happen?


Nothing, right?

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