For me, Uber is a guilty pleasure. While my inner eco-warrior is telling me to take the bus or the night tube, Uber offers a tempting solution to navigating London at night. With a few taps on my smartphone, I can avoid the drunken displays of emotion that are typical of late night journeys on public transport, and importantly, get safely home for an affordable price.
However, despite the obvious practical advantages that the big tech sector brings to our everyday lives, a backlash against ‘Silicon Valley’s angels’ seems to be growing. Uber has never been far from controversy, but TFL’s latest decision to withdraw the company’s London license is the latest and one of the most high-profile hurdles to date. Clearly their lack of corporate responsibility and questions around their reputation need to be addressed if they want to survive.
The app acts as an interface between workers and the company, offering flexibility to its ‘self-employed’ staff. But with the idea of new technology as its defence, Uber has operated on the precipice of the law. It has come under fire for failings on passenger safety, underpaying its drivers (who lack basic workers’ rights), and a lack of corporate responsibility with regards to reporting serious criminal offences, driver background checks and gaining medical certificates. What’s more, there are growing concerns over Uber’s use of Greyball, a software that can block regulatory bodies from gaining full access to its app and undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties. These are all threatening to hamper the company’s and the sector’s reputation and profitability.
Uber’s introduction of a corporate social responsibility programme came in 2015, six years after it was founded. Perhaps its failure to place social responsibility high on the agenda from the beginning allowed it to develop a negative and unsustainable corporate culture.
Recent research has shown that around 30% of corporate earnings derive from relationships with stakeholders such as governments, NGOs and activists. For tech companies in the sharing economy like Uber and Airbnb, their valuations are based on their ability to win political arguments in cities across the world. As such, London’s ruling will hopefully come as a stiff awakening for Uber and companies of a similar ilk. Corporate responsibility should be viewed as a must, and in the words of Uber’s CEO, “the truth is that there is a high cost to a bad reputation.”
Whatever the final outcome of the Uber uproar, it begs the question as to what the future holds for the already established tech companies, and whether they can address these issues. We need tech companies, not just to make life easier, but to help achieve sustainable development and solve some of the world’s most pressing issues, from climate change to illiteracy. If Silicon Valley fails to address people’s concerns and loses its social license to operate – that will not happen, and a huge opportunity will be missed.
With regards to Uber more specifically, I’m pleased that London has taken this stand, but I do hope that Uber will look to change their ways, and can regain their license. If they do, everyone will benefit. After all, it’s clearly a useful service, and everyone loves a guilty pleasure.