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Uber: When Big Data Threatens Local Democracy

Big data is threatening to crush local democracy across the country—and if it succeeds, it may distort local transit and infrastructure development for decades to come.

As Uber has sought to dominate the local taxi industry from Delhi to New York City, the company has deployed its multi-billion dollar venture capital war chest to fight politicians across the country and world, often ignoring local laws as it introduced its app and drivers into the heavily regulated taxi industry.  In New York City, a bill has been introduced to limit the growth of the company locally while the City Council studies the implications for the local taxi industry.

Yesterday, Uber added an attack ad against the City’s mayor Bill De Blasio on the front page of its hailing app, melding its attempt to control local taxi service with seeking control of local politics.  In doing so, it highlights the danger of letting multi-billion dollar global corporations control any part of local transit or other infrastructure, since it gives them a stake in distorting local politics as well.

Uber may be a young company but they have entered old-style politics with a vengeance, hiring David Plouffe, the former strategist for President Obama’s 2008 election campaign to help direct a team of 250 lobbyists operating in at least 50 cities and states around the country.  On top of vast financial resources for traditional lobbying, they control an equally important resource – data and communication with voters throughout local constituencies.  In local political fights, Uber has used email and its app real estate to launch multiple attacks on political opponents. 

An Opening Salvo in the Politics of Local Logistics

The fight over Uber is not about who runs local taxis, but really about who will control local transit and related infrastructure in the future.  Uber has made it clear its ambitions go far beyond taxis to encompass what Inc. magazine calls “the future of logistics.” 

The data Uber collects on users and local transportation can be converted into delivery services or, as writer Ken Roose explains, “like Amazon, it can become something akin to an all-purpose utility--it'll just be a way you get things and go places.” Uber has already launched a prototype “Uber Cargo” delivery business in Hong Kong and food delivery and courier services in other cities.

This ties into plans by companies like Google and Tesla to introduce driverless cars and a rush of tech companies to control the logistics and information related to local economies and commerce.   Driverless taxis are the obvious long-term next step for a company like Uber and could reshape urban transportation as fundamentally as the original introduction of the automobile.

The big data companies are already gearing up for the politics of controlling the next generation of urban infrastructure.  Google for example now spends more on lobbying that any other company, a large part of it ($18.2 million) on federal lobbying, but the company has also built a network of state lobbyists to help it on local fights like legalizing its driverless car project. 

Driverless cars combined with Uber data – and Google is a major investor in Uber – could remake urban transit, especially as local laws and infrastructure are changed to accommodate them.   Analysts are already discussing how the “‘transportation cloud’…will quickly become dominant form of transportation – displacing far more than just car ownership, it will take the majority of users away from public transportation as well.”

History of Global Corporations Distorting Local Transit Development

With so much at stake, the danger of letting big data money gut local democratic decision-making is obvious.  We only need look to the history of how the auto industry used its political muscle to literally pave the way for destroying local mass transit in multiple cities and pushing highways and suburbanization.  Some of that movement was going to happen naturally, but the auto companies sped the process along and deepened it with actions such as buying up local trolley systems and converting them to bus systems.

City streets, which had been a shared resource of cars, bikes and pedestrians, were converted to car-only use. Where car drivers were once held criminally liable for any pedestrian killed by their car, car companies launched major lobbying campaigns to create a new crime, “jaywalking” that put responsibility on pedestrians not to be in the cars’ way.  

Like Uber, the car companies used the communication infrastructure of the day, in that case wire services for reporters, to seize control of the public debate on use of streets.  The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce encouraged reporters to send basic details of traffic accidents to their service and would receive back a complete article to print the next day, with the articles shifting the blame for accidents to pedestrians.

The result of decades of car industry lobbying was the gutting of much of urban America. 

Fighting Monopoly as a Political Problem

With momentous political decisions facing local governments as big data, driverless cars and other technologies reshape local transit and logistics, we need to worry about big data monopolies not only distorting local industries at the economic level but also how their political power may distort political decision-making as well. 

Uber is backed by an array of economic players, from Google to Goldman Sachs and local politicians should recognize that legalizing Uber is not just adding an additional economic player to the local economy.  It will add a political player willing to spend billions of dollars with the goal of establishing a global logistics behemoth—and seemingly willing to waste any politicians who get in its way. 

If Uber is going to misuse its economic power to try to control local political institutions —including real estate on its apps as political attack ads – local governments should feel justified in restricting its growth until both the potential economic and political problems of an emerging taxi monopolist are addressed.  And it raises the broader issue of how big data’s political power needs to be restrained to ensure communities get to decide how best to use technology, rather than the technology companies deciding how best to use communities for their own economic interests.

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