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Brinkmanship and rebellion

Considerations of law aside, it’s interesting to observe not just Uber and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) in their on-going confrontation, but the public reacting to events, as well. Both Uber and the LTFRB are engaging in brinkmanship. For its part, Uber is marshaling public opinion on its side even as it confronts the authorities in a way entirely alien to our officials. Officialdom, for its part, is reacting with every regulatory power in its arsenal. It is the latest confrontation in a global battle pitting governments against companies like Uber — a battle to the death in the sense that quite a few tech companies, or at least their founders, have total contempt for governments in both theory and practice, while governments in response find themselves allied with the businesses being disrupted by tech firms.

Yesterday, the story for most of the morning was the litany of complaints from the public as the suspension of Uber kicked in. The LTFRB preened over its having flexed its muscles. Uber sent emails to all its users, drivers trooped to its office, politicians weighed in. Then Uber submitted a motion for reconsideration and almost simultaneously announced it was reactivating its app, which made the LTFRB go ballistic, issuing orders for the apprehension of any driver daring to take on passengers. The public responded by buzzing on social media how they were booking rides.

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The Palace of course had to give the LTFRB its backing while trying to make soothing noises about understanding the grumbling of the public. But the case had been lost by the LTFRB long ago. It’s not that people blindly worship Uber—though the enthusiasm for, and loyalty to, the app shouldn’t be underestimated. The case was lost from the time the LTFRB went hammer and tongs against Uber and company while obviously being unable—or, it’s perhaps fairer to say, as far as public opinion goes, unwilling—to do anything about taxis, buses and jeepneys.

Time and again I saw comments along the line of “I know Uber probably broke some rules, but why are the drivers and we, the passengers suffering as a result, especially when the LTFRB doesn’t do anything about the alternatives we all love to hate?” Statements by the LTFRB — that they wouldn’t be cowed by social media, that what they wanted was a greater share from the earnings of Uber and its drivers — and taxi operators pleading they had to break the rules to be able to eke out a living, and Congress hissing that what it wanted was to have companies go to them for franchises instead of kowtowing to the bureaucracy, only made matters worse.

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If it was all a power play anyway, which the public seemed pretty convinced has been the case all along, then the same public seems to think it might as well take the side of a service it likes versus officialdom which the public generally resents. Add to this the fact that government had actually innovated to create a category allowing apps like Uber to provide public convenience — and then walked back and tried to regulate a company that had grown almost exponentially—and you can understand why even if many people don’t think Uber is faultless, they consider this a minor matter compared to how government officials are behaving.

The order to apprehend drivers who use the app to pick up passengers is a particularly interesting case in point. How is a traffic enforcer supposed to detect an Uber driver in a sea of private vehicles? The LTFRB said among the reasons for it finally suspending Uber for a month was that someone went undercover to test if Uber was abiding by its agreement with the LTFRB not to authorize new drivers while the government figured out quotas. If this was already done, then it would be logical to assume the LTFRB might dispatch undercover agents to catch drivers. Secret marshals, if you will. Or, enforcers could simply randomly check, which makes every driver of a private vehicle fair game. Either situation is enough to turn every driver (and passenger) of a private vehicle into an instant crusader for privacy and property rights versus the many-tentacled monster that is the state — putting these people on the same ideologically Libertarian framework as the creators of apps like Uber themselves.

I saw some comments online arguing that Uber’s brinkmanship put drivers who use the app unfairly in harm’s way. Government itself made dire warnings that defiant drivers could have their cars taken away from them. It seems to me this only invites an almost genetically predetermined response to try to buck the odds. Not only because to stay home is to ensure you earn zero, while defying the ban allows you to earn and just negotiate your way out of trouble; it also offers a nearly-irresistible challenge to defy the authorities and get away with it.

The World War II generation often says we became a nation of scofflaws during the Japanese Occupation, when it became patriotic to disobey the authorities. At the particular moment when the government has tried to rule through fear, it has dared the public (middle class, at least) to defy it — on grounds the public finds unreasonable in the first place. You can imagine the determination this can provoke. As senators thunder and shrill about colossal drug imports, putting officials high and low in the hot seat, suddenly you have the opportunity to do the unthinkable — to rebel, under relatively controlled circumstances.

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TAGS: LTFRB, Manuel L. Quezon III, The Long View, TNCs, transportation network companies, Uber
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