Tuesday, 1 December 2015


Recently I've had occasion to hear a lot of people hold up Uber as an example of technological and social innovation. I can't take it anymore.

If you don't know, Uber is a company that has a phone app that lets you get a car to drive you somewhere. The car is not a taxi, it is just someone who will drive you to a place. The city you live in is almost inevitably full of people who would like a ride somewhere, and full of people who would be happy to give rides for a price, right? So Uber connects those two things together, sort of like a cork board where people can post offers, but in real time. And the cork board takes twenty percent.

I don't think Uber has pulled off anything technically brilliant. The basic idea of how to connect people with cars can be lifted straight from the taxi industry, and it's a job that lends itself to automation given how cheap computing power is. They didn't really pull off anything socially brilliant either.

What they did do is find a gaping hole in employment laws. That's their real innovation - getting a bunch of staff to work for them without actually paying the staff so that they don't have to do any of the things you legally have to do for your employees. And they circumvent lots of other regulations too. Why don't Uber cars need the same kind of insurance that other commercial vehicles need? They aren't commercial vehicles. Legally it's just a person choosing to pick another person up.

But Uber walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck. While they claim that the people driving for them are just independent people driving cars, facilitated by their service, we all know they are employees. And Uber has already lost a legal battle in California over this, having had their drivers declared employees in that state. I don't know quite what that means in California, but if the same thing happened in Ontario it would mean payroll taxes, workplace insurance premiums, more insurance for vehicles, parental leave, and a whole lot of others things that Uber doesn't want to deal with.

Companies finding out that our laws are inadequate to cover certain types of relationships that are facilitated by technology, and they are abusing those relationships while they are unregulated. There's nothing to be lauded there.

Hey, I've got an idea, let's just take someone who has a lot of money already and give them 20 percent of everything. Very innovative, right? Actually, it's about the oldest idea there is.

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