Thailand’s Case Against Uber

People rarely recognize the fact that large problems consist of little details, that, as we assume, don’t affect the grand picture, but little do we know they do. It’s curious that as the Southeast Asian region gradually takes center stage of the international political and economic life, the proud state of Thailand has a real opportunity to become a major driver of a future regional center of power. However, its government is not simply targeted by Western media and politicians for their reluctance to capitulate to Western special interests, they often face the same condescending attitude shown to them by a number of American companies, and it seems that the government has reached its limit.

It’s often being reported that Bangkok is plagued by traffic jams, a natural occurrence for a rapidly developing country attempting to improve the quality of life for its citizens. For instance, BBC would report that:

Once I got into a jam in downtown Bangkok, when I spent almost two hours moving less than a kilometre. Sometimes, my colleagues have arrived at work up to four hours late. I think the city should be more serious about public transport. People have better things to do than sit on the roads for hours every day.

It’s common wisdom that large buses are capable of freeing a lot of space on the streets, replacing up to 80 cars that otherwise choke traffic. Yet, if you cannot get other cars off the streets, then a once comfortable bus is quickly transformed in a smothering tin can stuffed with people that are all thinking about taking cars to work for at least some level of comfort. It doesn’t mean that less people will be able to own cars, it’s just that the government attempts to create clever ways for raising the costs of owning a car versus using public transporation. But if someone has been defying these steps taken by the government to improve the situation, what then?

The Bangkok Post has noted a couple of days ago that:

Eighteen Uber drivers were stopped and each fined 2,000 baht for using their vehicles as public transport without authorisation, and another 2,000 baht for wrongful use of the cars.

Their names and offences had been put into the department’s data base and their driving licences could be revoked if they continue to take passengers, he said. The drivers will be required to undergo a three-hour training course on attitude and legal matters.

Uber has been running rogue in a number of states where its operations are illegal, without making any attempt to obtain approval from local governments. And Thailand is one of such states, applying strict rules to all taxi drivers in order to guarantee the safety of their passengers. It may be legal to be in possession of marijuana in some US states, but no American entrepreneur has ever attempted to sell it, for instance, in Malaysia, where one may face the death penalty for such conduct. But since no serious steps have ever been taken against Uber in the majority of nations it operates beyond the law, its management thinks it is entitled to violate sovereignty and legality whenever and wherever it sees fit.

The only downside to such policies is that a state that is trying to battle traffic jams will witness an ever growing number of cars in the streets, since those so-called car-sharing services are forcing those seeking to profit to cruise the streets in order to get paid. For Uber more traffic means more profit, and it doesn’t care how it affects the quality of life of those living in cities strangled by traffic. And when local authorities attempt affect this situation, Uber happens to have an ace up its sleeve.

The well respected CNET portal would report in its article “Uber devises secret Greyball tool to evade officials”:

Well, Uber has a workaround for that pesky problem. It’s a secretive tool called “Greyball” that Uber has used since 2014 to thwart authorities in cities where the service isn’t yet legal but drivers are still picking up rides.

“This program denies ride requests to fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service — whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers,” an Uber spokeswoman wrote in an email.

Now as the Greyball scandal gains steam, we are led to believe that Uber collected data from various sources, including social network and phone books, to establish officials and competitors who were trying to somehow affect their operations. But all of this is nothing but an attempt at damage control in a situation where Uber is beyond redemption. It’s not hard to figure out where and how the taxi giant was getting the information it wanted – from Google. You see, up to 2013, fairly secure Blackberry mobile devices were the go-to choice in Thailand, but then they were overtaken by devices running Android. Google has a track record of collecting all sorts of data about its users and eagerly shares it with fellow tech-giants if the latter is willing to pay a fair price for it. There’s been indications that the two companies have been enjoying special relations as evident by the following article:

Uber has gained two former Google executives to work on the startup’s engineering team, the ride-hailing company has confirmed.

Former Google head of search Amit Singhal is joining Uber as SVP of engineering and former VP of engineering at Google Kevin Thompson will report to Singhal at Uber as VP of marketplace engineering.

So, it’s clear that the Thai government has every reason to crackdown on Uber for its malicious practices, and it would be only wise to put Google and Android in check as well.

The promise of decentralization and distributed wealth through peer-to-peer services like Uber is overshadowed by the company’s abusive practices making it just as bad as the existing monopolies it claims it’s competing against. Uber and the Android devices it is stripping information from represent more of a shift toward another sort of monopoly rather than real decentralization, an important factor to keep in mind when analyzing both Uber and services like it.

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