Uber: From Ride Hail to Blackmail

Uber: From Ride Hail to Blackmail
by Roger C. Lanctot on 11-24-2016 at 12:00 pm

 The U.S. State of Maryland is in the midst of a confrontation with Uber over fingerprints. Maryland wants Uber (and Lyft) to collect the fingerprints of its drivers as part of its background check process. Uber does not want to do so and is threatening to leave the state.

In the run up to a Maryland Public Service Commission hearing to consider the fingerprinting issue this past week, Uber called on supporters from among its 30,000 drivers and undetermined number of passengers (who have accounted for 10M rides since Uber arrived in Maryland, according to the company) to rally on its behalf. A decision on the matter is expected by December 15, when the fingerprint requirement will go into effect for all transportation network companies.

The threat to leave the state is a pressure tactic. Uber is trying to turn the tables on the regulators, forcing them to consider the welfare, convenience and livelihoods of Uber drivers and passengers. Ironically, given multiple instances of criminal behavior by Uber drivers, that is precisely the concern of the Maryland Public Service Commission.

The threat to leave the state suggests that Uber believes it is not only on the right side of the question from a legal and fairness standpoint, but that it has the support of Maryland’s Uber drivers and passengers sufficient to tip the Commission’s decision in its favor. I personally believe Uber is over-playing its hand. Threatening a public agency sets a bad precedent for future interactions.

It reminds me of the influence and impact of Waze. Waze has launched its Connected Citizens Program to engage with cities to obtain and integrate local traffic information sources while sharing its own traffic info.

Like Uber, Waze influences the markets in which it participates. One can imagine a scenario where Waze might threaten an uncooperative city with carmaggedon should that city choose not to participate in the program.

That’s a purely hypothetical scenario, but Waze does wreak havoc on traffic on a daily basis routinely diverting drivers onto little known and little used side streets to sidestep traffic jams. Some Connected Citizens Program participants have sought to engage with Waze to better manage Waze’s unwelcome diversions.

The Uber threat to leave Maryland is a darker matter. There’s no reason why Uber can’t add fingerprinting to its existing background check procedures.

Uber claims that fingerprinting introduces racial bias into the process as minorities tend to have more criminal history on their records. The local taxi and limousine commission, which already uses fingerprinting, notes that minorities are actually over-represented among the ranks of current checked and certified drivers – contradicting Uber’s claim.

Unlike Waze which is seeking to engage in a constructive manner with municipalities, Uber seems to be caught in constant struggles with regulators throughout the world. This contentious mode of operation leaves travelers and other potential customers constantly asking: “Is Uber legal here?”

Even worse, the ongoing battles for market share with incumbent cab drivers often leads to violent interactions on the street in places such as Paris and Rio de Janeiro. That is enough to give some potential fares pause before they hail that Uber.

Given Uber’s intentions to disrupt all public transportation and possibly the automobile industry as a whole, there is no reason to be sympathetic to Uber. The short-term gain of cheap fares is not worth the occasional and horrible criminal activity engaged in by improperly vetted Uber drivers. If Uber can’t play by the rules it shouldn’t be allowed on the playing field.