It has been in trou­ble else­where, but Lon­don is the ul­ti­mate test

The East African - - OUTLOOK -

TFL HAS ruled it will not re­new Uber’s pri­vate hire op­er­a­tor li­cence af­ter it ex­pires. The body, which op­er­ates Lon­don’s public trans­port net­work and reg­u­lates taxis in the cap­i­tal, said Uber was “not fit and proper” to hold the li­cence. Lon­don mayor Sadiq Khan backed the de­ci­sion.

There were po­ten­tial public safety and se­cu­rity im­pli­ca­tions from the way the com­pany is run, TFL said. It pointed to Uber’s ap­proach to: Re­port­ing se­ri­ous crim­i­nal of­fences; ob­tain­ing med­i­cal cer­tifi­cates; and back­ground checks into driv­ers.

Uber’s use of se­cret soft­ware — called “Grey­ball” — which could be used to block reg­u­la­tors from gain­ing full ac­cess to the app, was also cited by TFL in its de­ci­sion. The com­pany re­jected Tfl’s claims that it en­dan­gers public safety and said Grey­ball had never been used in the UK for the pur­poses cited.

Could it shut down in Lon­don?

Uber has 28 days to lodge an ap­peal, and the firm has said it will do just that. Fred Jones, an ex­ec­u­tive for Uber UK, told the BBC that Uber would ap­peal against the de­ci­sion through the courts and con­tinue op­er­at­ing be­yond Septem­ber 30. That could see Uber car­ry­ing on its op­er­a­tions for months to come, the BBC un­der­stands.

TFL said Uber can “con­tinue to op­er­ate un­til any ap­peal pro­cesses have been ex­hausted”. Nigel Mackay, a lawyer at Leigh Day law firm, which has chal­lenged Uber over its work­ing prac­tices, said Uber’s ap­peal “could go all the way to the Supreme Court.”

“This could be a lengthy process and the time­line is very dif­fi­cult to pre­dict. Essen­tially, how long is a piece of string?” he added.

Is there a loop­hole?

Could pas­sen­gers in Lon­don still legally book an Uber even if the firm lost its TFL op­er­at­ing li­cence? In the­ory, yes. In Eng­land and Wales, pas­sen­gers can book a pri­vate hire ve­hi­cle from any­where they like — just so long as the driver, the ve­hi­cle and the op­er­a­tor are all li­censed by the same author­ity, and the book­ing is pro­cessed in that author­ity’s area. That does not need to be the same place the pas­sen­ger wants to be picked up or dropped off.

Uber has lots of li­cences out­side Lon­don, and app­based ser­vices like Uber can process book­ings al­most any­where they like. TFL are not happy with this state of af­fairs and say they are lob­by­ing the gov­ern­ment to tighten up the rules. But, for the time be­ing, even if Uber lost their Lon­don li­cence, a pas­sen­ger in the cap­i­tal could book an Uber li­censed in, say, Brighton — and it would be com­pletely above board.

Can ri­vals cap­i­talise?

Lon­don’s tra­di­tional black cab driv­ers have fiercely op­posed Uber’s pres­ence in Lon­don. And Uber — which was granted a five-year li­cence in Lon­don in 2012 — has proved a big threat to mini­cab firms too. Tfl’s de­ci­sion pro­vides a big op­por­tu­nity for those mini­cab firms to win back cus­tomers, said Joseph Evans, an an­a­lyst at En­ders Anal­y­sis.

“If they fail at ap­peal and they can’t get a li­cence to op­er­ate in Lon­don, ob­vi­ously it’s a huge op­por­tu­nity for ri­vals,” he said. “Be­hind the scenes, with­out many peo­ple notic­ing, mini­cab firms have rolled out very sim­i­lar tech at com­pet­i­tive prices.”

They now of­fer app book­ing, quicker pick-up, bet­ter trans­parency on where driv­ers are, and mo­bile pay­ments.

Hasn’t Uber hit trou­ble else­where?

Yes. Uber left the Texas city of Austin last year af­ter it lost a ref­er­en­dum re­quir­ing strict back­ground checks on its driv­ers. The com­pany has since re­turned af­ter mak­ing some changes, and the same could hap­pen in Lon­don, pre­dicts BBC North Amer­i­can tech cor­re­spon­dent Dave Lee.

Uber has also run into trou­ble in ma­jor Euro­pean cities, in­clud­ing in Paris, Brus­sels and Madrid. In June 2014, taxi driv­ers across Europe went on strike in protest at what they re­garded as a lack of reg­u­la­tion of the mo­bile taxi-book­ing ser­vice.

In Septem­ber that same year, a court in Frank­furt, Ger­many, ruled that the firm lacked the nec­es­sary le­gal per­mits to op­er­ate un­der Ger­man law. Uber later with­drew its ser­vices from Frank­furt, Ham­burg and Dus­sel­dorf af­ter its busi­ness was ham­pered by reg­u­la­tions.

New laws for driv­ers in­tro­duced in Den­mark in 2016, in­clud­ing manda­tory me­ters, also saw the com­pany pulling out af­ter less than three years of ser­vice in the coun­try. The firm said in a state­ment that “reg­u­la­tions need to change” in or­der for it to op­er­ate.

Uber was banned in Italy ear­lier this year af­ter a court in Rome up­held a com­plaint by taxi unions that the firm rep­re­sented un­fair com­pe­ti­tion for tra­di­tional taxis. The ban was later an­nulled fol­low­ing an ap­peal by the firm.

If they fail at ap­peal and they can’t get a li­cence to op­er­ate in Lon­don, ob­vi­ously it’s a huge op­por­tu­nity for ri­vals.” Joseph Evans, an an­a­lyst

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