Uber announced today that it’s suspending its UberPop ride-sharing service in France, a move that comes after weeks of aggressive protests that culminated in the arrest of two Uber executives this week.
It has taken a LOT of outrage, aggression, car-toppling, and legal interception for Uber to finally pull the plug on UberPop, at least until a final decision emerges from France’s Constitutional Court in September. So does this mean that Uber is starting to see things from the others’ perspective? Not quite.
If you’re new to the story, here it is again in a nutshell. As with other countries around the world, Uber’s arrival has raised the ire of taxi drivers across France — and UberPop is the main focus of their rage. The mobile app connects travelers with private car owners, with no regulation or licensing, and it has led to accusations of there being one rule for taxi drivers and another for Uber.
A new law came into effect this year, however, theoretically requiring UberPop drivers to follow the same licensing regulations and training as taxi drivers. But that takes time and money, thus making it hard for Uber to scale — so it contended the law and continued to offer the service anyway, pending a higher court ruling later this year. Uber even reportedly paid fines its drivers received to ensure the show remained on the road.
But with riots engulfing cities, French authorities were forced to act — which is why it swooped on Uber’s French operations, arrested two executives, and charged them on a number of grounds, including “permitting illegal taxi services.”
In a press release issued to journalists this morning explaining the reasons for suspending UberPop, Uber was quick to trumpet the benefits of its service, pointing to the 500,000 French UberPop passengers who will be “sad,” as well as the income it has generated for 10,000 drivers. “They’ve also told us how much they love the flexibility that comes with this work: the freedom to pick their kids up from school, look after an elderly relative or attend an evening course,” the company said.
Buried within the statement, however, was this paragraph, which seems innocuous enough at first glance [emphasis ours]: “It is heartbreaking to see the violence in the streets when we know that taxi drivers can earn more on the Uber platform. It’s why we need to do a better job explaining and communicating the advantages of Uber to all drivers.”
It’s quite a telling statement. Uber is kinda sorta taking the blame for the furor, but not because of any law-bending activity, no — but because it’s done a poor job getting its message across. Moreover, it reads like a backhanded way of blaming taxi drivers for not understanding the message. But here’s the thing — the message is perfectly clear to everyone, including taxi drivers, and it is: UberPop is cheaper than normal taxis, and the underlying technology is disruptive and cool because it solves a genuine, real-world problem.
The “poor communication” excuse has emerged as a key tool in companies’ arsenal of pseudo-apologies. When a tech firm finds itself on the receiving end of the public’s ire, it often trots out the same explanation. Exactly a year ago, Facebook found itself in a similar situation — users discovered that the social network had been playing with their emotions by deliberately feeding them gloomy and depressing information. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg seemingly issued an apology, but she didn’t really. She said:
“It was poorly communicated … for that communication we apologize … we never meant to upset you.”
It didn’t really address the core concerns. People weren’t irked by the communication (or lack thereof), they were irate that Facebook was seemingly trying to “play God” with people’s mental states.
With Uber, it’s a similar situation. It’s not a case of poor communication — that doesn’t drill down into why the taxi drivers are as angry as they are. If France asks taxi drivers to do training or pay for certain licenses, but then lets anyone offer a similar service anyway in their spare time with next to no investment, then it’s easy to see why there are problems.
The taxi industry may well be decrepit; it may be ripe for disruption; and Uber may just have the solution. But whatever the reason is for Uber’s perennial wrangles around the world, it has absolutely nothing to do with poor communication.
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