Regulation Or Surveillance? LA’s Feud With Uber And Lyft Brings Concerns About Privacy
What it means to travel in the United States in 2019 vastly depends on where you’re living. As opposed to other countries (such as Germany or the Netherlands) where public transportation is normal and well-connected between various major cities and even small towns, the US has localized funding for public transit with highways (the Interstate System) being some of the only country wide public infrastructure.
As a result of the Interstate System changing the US, many cities are more car dependent than others. Los Angeles is one of those cities, with a long history of cars being the preferred mode of transport for many residents. Though public transportation is provided, its overall scope and reliability makes it not desirable for those who have consistent commutes or need to be strictly punctual. In other major US cities such as New York and Boston this dilemma is the same, with the spontaneous/inaccessible nature of public transportation making cars or bikes a preferred mode of transportation.
Combining the popularity of car-based transportation with the desire to have some type of public transit system, ride sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft burst onto the scene a few years ago, aiming to provide users with cheap alternatives to taxis that also circumvent certification processes for drivers to create a more profitable experience overall. However, it quickly became clear that these types of services would go beyond just providing an affordable service, instead beginning a battle between the city of Los Angeles over what the future of transportation looks like.
The most recent talking points in this debate are the inclusion of scooters and electric bikes. However, it’s more complicated than you might think — Uber and Lyft aren’t fighting LA over the inclusion of these products in their programs, but rather certain regulations that the city wants to impose on them. As you might have heard, electric scooters have not had the most positive history in other Californian cities, making them prime points in the debate over how ride sharing companies will continue to influence public infrastructure.
The latest proposed regulations don’t have to do with the existence of scooters, though. As opposed to banning the practice outright, the city of Los Angeles is trying to change the amount of information that ride sharing companies give them. Specifically, the city is interested in having data about who is riding each company’s electric scooters and bikes and where they’re riding them to.
In response to this proposal, Uber and Lyft teamed up to pass a bill last week that would attempt to gut the program. The bill was passed in the state assembly but it remains to be seen if it will pass in the state senate.
Protecting Users or Business?
At the center of this data protection argument is Uber and Lyft saying that they don’t want to leave the private travel information of their users open to surveillance. In the same way that public transit provides users some sense of anonymity when purchasing and operating transit cards, Uber and Lyft reportedly want to maintain this practice and allow their users not to feel scrutinized by the state.
However, it’s also worth noting that many critics have been suspicious of the companies wanting to protect the rights of their customers. This is because ride sharing companies have been notorious for sliding underneath regulations, finding loopholes so their businesses can cut corners on the fly. Recent controversies such as Uber and Lyft drivers attempting to unionize showcases this best, suggesting that perhaps the companies are not as interested in data privacy as much as they are surpassing regulations.
Ride Sharing is Difficult to Trace
The debate over how much information ride sharing companies should share with the government is extra pertinent in California, a state where businesses are only required to share data once a year, only giving zip codes of recent trips. This also becomes more complicated when you keep in mind that the boost in popularity to companies such as Uber and Lyft has also increase the amount of cars on the roads at any given time.
As a result of this, some cities (such as LA) have reportedly had an increase in congestion, increasing the need for some type of infrastructural plan to address traffic. This puts the city of LA in a difficult position, as it’s incredibly difficult to trace ride sharing programs. Because they can’t trace the programs but simultaneously see that they are increasing congestion, how are they supposed to address public infrastructure?
Because of this, the city regulations have taken the form of the Mobility Data Specification (MDS) program. This type of program has been increasingly popular in other metropolitan areas of the country, allowing cities to gather information on where ride sharing bikes and scooters are parked, where people are driving them, and their battery levels.
Affecting the City and the Environment
The MDS program is only a single instance of regulation for ride sharing bikes and scooters. For example, as electric scooters become more popular worldwide, cities have been figuring out how to incorporate them into public infrastructure without disrupting said infrastructure. This is because initially scooters were left on the sidewalks after use or littered in surrounding areas, causing both congestion and environmental concerns. After all, if a user throws an electric scooter into a nearby pond therefore littering it, is the user responsible, or the company?
Some cities have begun accommodating for electric scooters in and out of ride sharing programs by introducing scooter lanes and specific parking places to put them. However, while certain US cities have started to make room for these products in their infrastructure, other European cities (such as Berlin) still have many rental bikes dropped on the streets and sidewalks.
Problems With Surveillance
While some people think that programs such as MDS are good due to them making it more difficult for ride sharing programs to avoid regulations, many people are concerned about whether it is safe for all citizens to have constant state-lead regulations. Is it important for the state to know where everybody is going with ride sharing programs? Is that exchange of information worth the tradeoff of cities being able to regulate and improve their public infrastructure?
Even if the cities were to only collect certain types of anonymous data, there has been extensive research suggesting that identity can be easily traced with just a few different pieces of data. This is concerning for many individuals who use ride sharing services as it suggests that their data is more valuable than they previously had thought, giving states an astonishing level of surveillance over their citizens without having to enforce many changes.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Right now, the most important thing to do is see how this legislation does in the state senate. What is most likely is that the tech companies will be required to give some type of information to the government, but it is unclear as to which type of data they will have to give.
With recent controversies involving social media companies exchanging the information of customers, it’s justified for many users of ride sharing apps to fear the consequences of giving their data away without knowing how it will be used. For this reason, it makes sense to be wary of MDS regulations, as we are still figuring out ways in which our data is being used that we were never aware of in the first place. More Americans are becoming aware of the consequences of data, with aspects of identity that previously seemed inconsequential (i.e. social media accounts) being used more frequently in everyday life to identify employment, success, and other career opportunities.
As our technological world continues to evolve, it’s important that the discussion over the importance of data privacy will only rage on. However, whether this leads to ride sharing companies or governmental forces taking the lead remains to be seen.