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."