Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Curious case of Uber in Korea

First published in The Korea Herald.

Over the past couple of years, the sharing economy ― a system built around the sharing of human and physical resources ― has caught the world by storm. While the practice of sharing goods has always been common between closed groups ― friends, family and neighbors ― now the concept has evolved into a profitable business model.

It has been helped largely by the strides in information technology that led to the worldwide boom in Internet penetration and smartphone use.

The sharing economy has many advantages. It can reduce costs for available goods, services and time. You can use a product or service only when necessary, and don’t have to deal with the normal headaches. On the other hand, an owner can unlock the potential value of an item, such as a room, a vehicle or a consumer good when it’s not in use. The sharing economy also offers access to things that might not be practical to own or obtain.

Some of the most notable businesses that have boomed on the concept of the sharing economy are Airbnb, Snapgoods, DogVacay, RelayRides, TaskRabbit, Getaround, Liquid, Zaarly, Lyft, LendingClub, Fon and Poshmark.

With the range of services offered, one can rent a room or a whole home, get petsitters for dogs, allow people to borrow cars from neighbors, help people to hire others for jobs and tasks, rent bikes and cars, and even get hard cash when in need, share a home Wi-Fi network, and buy or sell used clothes.

Given the huge advantages that this system offers, similar services are bound to proliferate around the world, and most likely in technology-driven Korea.

On the face of it, people should welcome such businesses with open arms and governments should have no objections.

Then why is it that the so-called sharing economy business Uber is being hauled over the coals by the Seoul city government? And moreover, is the government unfairly targeting the app that helps summon a car for a cost?

As 2014 drew to a close, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office issued an indictment against CEO Travis Kalanick and the firm’s Korean unit for violating a law prohibiting individuals or firms without appropriate licenses from providing or facilitating transportation services.

This was immediately met with protest by the company, which was echoed by countless “sharing” enthusiasts across the world.

However, although I am all for disruptive technologies and hugely back the concept of the sharing economy, I am with the Seoul government on this case.

Over the past several months, Uber has asked the mayor of Seoul to revise the laws so that citizens can use the service without worrying about breaking the law. However, even after it was flatly refused it went ahead and started offering the service without getting clearance.

It began offering UberX as a paid service, with a base fare of 2,500 won ($2.24), with an additional 610 won per kilometer and 100 won per minute. By comparison, base fare for local taxis starts at 3,000 won plus 100 won per 142 meters and 100 won per 35 seconds.

It smacked of arrogance to believe that since they were able to operate in so many cities around the world, they should be able to operate in Seoul. Uber had no right to start services when they knew that it was a gray zone they were operating in, and had been repeatedly warned.

The company knows that under current laws, anyone using his own passenger car to carry paying customers is subject to imprisonment for two years or less, or fines of up to 20 million won.

When you want to start a flourishing business, you just don’t abuse the goodwill of the government and cock a snook at the authorities. Wait till all the regulatory hurdles are cleared and then start your business. Lobby for amending the regulation, but do not jump the gun.

To make matters worse for the company, a city ordinance has been passed to criminalize the violators and reward up to 1 million won to those reporting illegal Uber taxi operators beginning in January. Using a private car for a taxi service is also punishable by an immediate six-month suspension for that car.

Coming to my second point of defense of the Seoul government decision. The reason Uber has grown so quickly worldwide is because it is not regulated the same way that traditional taxi services are. Proponents of the service say that it’s about time for monopolistic, overregulated city cab services to be broken up. They argue that people deserve options, better pricing and more nimble technology, which Uber offers.

However, the way I see it, taxis are a public utility and the government has every right to regulate them. Imagine if companies started offering other public utilities without regulation ― a sure recipe for chaos and disaster.

It is not very easy to get a taxi service license in Seoul, and the market is already saturated with around 6,000 taxis. Given this, the service offered by Uber has the potential to deal a severe blow to the taxi industry, whose hands are tied due to excessive regulations, even as the upstart “illegal” taxis are waiting to pounce on the opportunity. Most taxi drivers come from a lower-income background, and it is like kicking them in the stomach; the issue is not about depriving “unregulated” taxi drivers of additional income as Uber is making it out to be.

On top of it all, data privacy is something that has not been clearly addressed by the company. There are also doubts about the screening process and the training that is provided to the Uber drivers, which has become an issue in many cities. Because of the way their system operates, the safety concerns will only increase. Maybe that is why Uber claimed that “UberX is safer than any other mode of transportation in Seoul.”

However, safety is not really an issue for the public when it comes to taxis in Seoul. The taxis here are amongst the safest in the world, unlike in, say, Delhi. It is just an ad line that holds no water. Moreover, the company says the same thing in all places it operates, but molestation cases are not dying down. The company has a standard answer when faced with such cases: We are cooperating with the authorities. We are just a platform to connect people to drivers and are not directly responsible.

Given these clouds, it will be better for the company to clear all the regulatory hurdles before offering the service here, instead of readying for a legal battle.

Having said that, now that the Seoul government has taken on Uber, it should ensure that the misdemeanors of its taxi drivers ― for example rash driving or refusing passengers ― should be strictly dealt with. It should push forward regulations strengthening the crackdown on taxi drivers, and increase the supply of alternative transportation. Once the public stops complaining about the existing taxi services, the government will be on a firmer footing.