The whole issue of Uber and the recent reports on mainstream and social media on assaults by Uber drivers on unsuspecting passengers has spread across the world – from the USA, India and now to Sri Lanka. The recent assault of a passenger by an Uber tuk-tuk driver here at home, has generated a lot of talk on social media, spurring investigative journalists from mainstream to look at the various aspects of app-based taxi services. Not so much the good of them as the bad and the ugly.
There is no doubt that app-based services are very much a thing of our digital age and will become the key factor in disrupting older models, in terms of technology advances. But what’s becoming clearer is that not all of this technology advancement is for the good of society. There are several factors as to why this is, key amongst them being the way in which technology engages with humans.
Whilst digital disruption is inevitable and is not essentially a bad thing, it is important for governments and policymakers to have their ears to the ground on the changes that come with it. They need to understand how the new advancements work so that they could put systems in place to protect their constituents from the ills of technology-driven companies, before it’s too late.
Here in Sri Lanka, we have received an early warning in the form of the Hokandara Uber passenger. The Uber tuk driver had not only slammed the passenger’s head against the metal pole of the vehicle with enough force to crack his skull but had pushed the unconscious man out of the three-wheeler, leaving him for dead. Luckily for the passenger, a passer-by was kind enough to call an ambulance.
The passenger on regaining consciousness has said the driver had assaulted him, simply because he had called him out on cancelling an earlier booking. The incident has made many wary of booking an Uber, especially since there is no local entity to help a passenger in distress. As for those in authority, this incident has to be treated as an early warning. We cannot afford to wait like the US, where according to a report released by CNN on Uber incidents, there have been 5,981 reports of sexual assault and 19 fatalities during 2017 and 2018.
Whilst these figures are only from the USA, one wonders what shocks would await if we were to investigate the other 60 countries Uber operates in. However, all this brings us to one conclusion i.e. technology-driven companies operating remotely should be viewed through a different set of glasses than those who operate under Sri Lankan laws.
If you take Uber and the many other local web-driven taxi companies – Uber has no local operation that could deal with an emergency as opposed to the Sri Lankan companies. There is no immediate local contact for passengers to make a complaint because the Uber offices and troubleshooters are located in another part of the world. Therefore, we can safely conclude that companies providing web-based services remotely have no accountability or transparency and therefore no good governance, which is a cornerstone of any socially responsible corporate citizen.
So, where does that leave us? Primarily it is a security issue and even though it may not fall under terrorism or civil disturbance, deep-rooted in the DNA of these tech-driven companies are huge risk factors for citizens. Even something as simple as food delivery should come under scrutiny because of the food safety factor whilst it is being transported by individuals from a restaurant to home.
While everything may seem tickety-boo to the hungry consumer, this writer believes there are various agents within the state-run organisations who should be looking at standards and hygiene issues. For example, systems as simple as sealing food boxes or packs in such a way that they would be tamper-proof could be put into operation for starters.
But on much wider scrutiny, one needs to check on the agreements and contracts signed between restaurant owners and the current delivery services. What’s written in fine print would be important to understand and digest because it is the fine print that comes into play when things go wrong. What assurances do we have from these companies, against any mishap when delivering our food?
Another vital question – since these delivery companies are registered as technology companies, which state-run organisations should look into the food safety aspect and the transport security aspect? Should there be a special agency appointed by the government to manage these hybrid organisations that sometimes work in the twilight zone, so that their activities may not fall between the cracks into a void that is unregulatable.
As an initial attempt at bringing about regulation, it would be worth our while to conduct a study as to why Uber has been banned in so many countries. Whilst the reasons may not draw many parallels to the situation in Sri Lanka, they would certainly shed some light on how we need to manage technology disruption and the emergence of a new breed of companies. While these organisations will certainly be an advantage, they will also come with its own set of negatives, which we need to be prepared to handle.
(Michael Soris can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org)