Piers Dillon-Scott


As Uber, Airbnb, & Google Glass push social & legal limits regulators push back, but who’ll win?

Regulators & established competitors are challenging wearable tech & new peer-to-peer apps like Uber & Airbnb. Can they slow their progress to the mass market?

Late one summer’s evening in 2012, along the Champs-Élysées, humans (allegedly) attacked their first cyborg. This isn’t science fiction it really (allegedly, I’m going to use that word a lot) happened.

The cyborg in question is Dr Steve Mann. Since the 1980s he’s been progressively enhancing (or degrading, depending on how you feel about these things) his body by either wearing, attaching or surgically implanting technology on/in his person. His latest device looks like an industrial-grade Google Glass, except rather than being worn, it’s physically attached to his face.

On that July Parisian evening Mann says he walked into a restaurant where he was set upon by some people who apparently didn’t appreciate being recorded by his device (the restaurant says that its own investigation found that no ‘physical altercation’ took place).

Mann’s alleged attack may be extraordinary, but we’re seeing more examples of technology butting heads with social and political norms. In the US, Glass has already been banned in shops and some public spaces, and some Glass users report that they have been assaulted (and even discriminated against...) for just wearing their headsets.

As some authorities struggle to figure out how, and even if, they should regulate wearable technology, others fear increased automation will put millions out of work. Similarly, some are concerned that the peer-to-peer/sharing economy will damage livelihoods and undermine established economics.

For example, from taxis, to trains, to haulage, over three million people are employed as drivers in the US. Cheap competition from automated vehicles and/or private individuals could threaten these livelihoods (as well as the government’s slice of their tax dollars).

In response to this some see the events in Paris as a re-emergence of Luddism. According to Bryan Appleyard, writing in New Statesman last month,

“Inevitably, there will be social and political friction [related to these technologies and services]. The onset has been signalled by skirmishes such as the London Underground strikes over ticket-office staff redundancies caused by machine-readable Oyster cards, and by the rage of licensed taxi drivers at the arrival of online unlicensed car booking services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.”

As one of the leading peer-to-peer services, Uber has been pushing the social and political boundaries of the sharing economy. As one example, and returning to Paris, taxi drivers at Charles-de-Gaulle Airport reportedly attacked an Uber driver and his passengers. The taxi drivers were protesting against what they feel are the unfair advantages given to such ridesharing services. Uber, Lyft and other such drivers typically aren’t subject to the same regulations, licence costs, or insurance premiums as their government licenced cousins.

Some peer-to-peer services argue that regulators and legislators (such as those in France who have imposed a 15 minute waiting period on all ridesharing services), are either simply behind the times or are kowtowing to lobby groups and following protectionist policies. While some regulators and policy makers believe that such services ignore health and safety requirements and may fail to adequately protect consumers.

Speaking to Freakonomics Radio this week, Airbnb’s Co-Founder & CTO Nathan Blecharczyk, was equivocal about the service’s overall legal standing,

Dubner : Right. So you’re helping Portland collect taxes. Is Airbnb operating entirely legally in Portland?

Blecharczyk: Well there’s simultaneously a review of the regulation going on. And so that is happening in multiple stages.

Dubner: Right, but short answer, and I realize that for legal reasons you may not want to say these words, but I can. Short answer is you’re not operating legally yet in Portland. You can cough if someone has a gun to you head, Nate.

Blecharczyk: So again, this is something that is evolving. Airbnb itself is definitely operating legally. The individual cases of our hosts varies very much based on what kind of building they’re in, what part of the city they’re in, et cetera.”

Blecharczyk went on to say that while the company itself is operating legally some users fear they may fall into legal trouble if they reveal to authorities, specifically tax authorities, that they are renting their properties to guests.

Uber is equally defiant in Germany. This week a court in Frankfurt banned the company’s UberPop service. With the ruling in place, Uber could be fined €250,000 per ride; yet it plans to continue. According to a company spokesperson,

“You cannot put the brakes on progress. Uber will continue its operations and will offer Uberpop ridesharing services via its app throughout Germany.”

Uber may argue that you can’t stop progress, but Appleyard disagrees that progress so inevitable,

“First, there is the belief—it is actually a superstition—in progress as an inevitable and benign outcome of free-market economics. Second, there is the extraordinary power of the technology companies to hypnotise us with their gadgets.”

Uber expects to grow fivefold in Germany in the next year, and Airbnb says Paris will soon become its top destination – but these countries’ social and regulatory climates will mediate their, and other, technologies’ progress. Meanwhile, driverless cars, Google Glass, the Internet of Things, home automation, sousveillance, beacon technologies, and augmented reality are lining up to be the next technologies to test our social and political limits.

Also this week - plenty of Apple stuff, the psychology of film editing, and the next big frontier of UX design (the car)


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#Flashback (bonus)

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