How Taiwan is inoculating itself against the Uber “virus”

Uber in Taipei in happier times. To be specific, 2015. Image: Getty.

The ongoing clashes over Uber, the controversial ride-sharing app, are a constant reminder of how badly governments are being outpaced by innovation. None of them seems able to achieve the difficult feat of standing up to big, disruptive companies but also harnessing the benefits their technology brings.

In the UK last autumn, the courts did part of that job, ruling that Uber drivers are not self-employed and that the company may have to ensure they get the minimum wage, holiday pay and other entitlements. That ruling is no substitute for a thorough, democratic, consultative process, one that allows the will of the public to be ascertained and brought to bear on the likes of Uber – but then that kind of process can itself seem slow, cumbersome, easily outpaced.

It needn’t be like that, though. Democracy can be nimble – and powerful. Last year Taiwan passed a law that represents a capitulation by Uber to the full force of public consensus, as established through a radically open, democratic online process – “the cyberpunk frontier of democracy”, some have labelled it. Though it’s by no means perfect, Taiwan’s law is an inspiration to anyone wondering how democracy can be reborn in the age of the multinational corporation and the tech disrupter.

Uber’s arrival in Taiwan in 2013 played out in the usual way: the service was hugely popular, taking custom off traditional taxi drivers – but often because it cut corners. Uber drivers didn’t have to have insurance or professional driver’s licences, their charges undercut the fare structure set down in law, and the company wasn’t paying the same taxes as local firms.

Into this conflict stepped the organisation g0v, a network of civic-minded hackers who since 2012 have been opening up Taiwan’s government to public scrutiny. They’ve built "shadow" government websites (with .g0v URLs) to make data radically more accessible, helped draft crowdsourced legislation, and inspired a TV show – beamed into virtual reality headsets – where ministers respond directly to citizens’ ideas.

The g0v team were also a leading force in the 2014 "Sunflower Movement" that saw protestors occupy the Taiwanese parliament and hundreds of thousands gather against a controversial free trade deal with China. So this is not an online movement divorced from the material world: the two “need to work together,” says g0v member Audrey Tang, who was recently appointed Taiwan’s digital minister.

When it came to Uber, g0v teamed up with officials last year, in an online process called vTaiwan, to find out what the public wanted done. But they didn’t just send out a consultation document or start up a Facebook group. Instead, they used a new tool called Pol.is that groups like-minded people together and then allows them to suggest and refine proposals to be voted on.

This four-week process – involving 4,500 people, including users and drivers of both Uber and traditional taxis – worked because it nudged people towards consensus. More extreme statements – such as, "the government should do nothing about Uber" – were rejected, and contributors were encouraged to put up more nuanced ideas. Eventually this yielded seven recommendations that were each backed by over four-fifths of contributors.


Tang then facilitated a meeting in August last year with Uber and government officials – but instead of taking place behind closed doors, as such meetings normally do, it was livestreamed, and live-transcribed, with over 1,800 people watching. Faced with such clear public pressure, and knowing there was a real consensus behind the demands, Uber “caved in” on almost all of them, Tang says. 

The company promised its drivers would get insurance and professional driver’s licences, stop undercutting standard fare structures, and submit ride data to the Taiwanese authorities. Other changes, aimed at making it easier for civil society to start up its own Uber variants, were also agreed. These points have all been incorporated in the new law.

The one big demand that Uber didn’t give way on, Tang has acknowledged, was that it pay a fair amount of tax. “If they commit to being a taxable entity in Taiwan, then the drivers become their employees, and they are fighting a very important legal battle [against that] in California. So if they agree to this last point in Taiwan, the Californian judge [would] use it against them.”

Does the failure to change Uber’s tax stance – perhaps the biggest problem that the company poses to lawmakers worldwide – invalidate the process? “Personally, I held no preconceptions going into the facilitation process, so any agreement is... progress,” Tang says.

The Uber issue could still be settled the hard way. Alongside the "good cop" vTaiwan process, the government is also playing bad cop, threatening to ban Uber for not paying enough tax and fining its drivers millions of pounds for operating illegally. Taxi drivers who weren’t part of the vTaiwan process – because Uber hadn’t hit their cities then – continue to organise traffic-blocking protests. Taiwanese courts have also been after the company.

But vTaiwan showed that the public wants to regulate Uber, not ban it. And that process remains a demonstration of “crowd-sourced agenda-setting power”, Tang says. “I see Uber as an epidemic of the mind. You don’t negotiate with a virus. All you can do is inoculate people – by deliberation, thinking deeply together to develop your immunity to their PR agenda. When you think about something very deeply together, you’re immune.”

And it’s not just Uber that’s having to play ball. Last year g0v ran a similar process with Airbnb, another disruptive company that the government had threatened to ban. Again, the results were striking: every one of the online-generated, consensus-backed recommendations was accepted.

Airbnb owners now have to operate on a level playing field with hotel owners, registering their businesses, installing safety equipment and buying insurance, and, crucially, paying full taxes. And the company itself is having to take notice. When Uber was under the spotlight, Tang says, “their lawyer was there, and their PR person from Asia, and the local CEOs... We used them to set an example. The next time, when we did Airbnb, the co-founder flew in."

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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