Why Is Fingerprinting Such a Sticky Point for Uber?

Charlotte Hays
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Posted: Jun 24, 2016 12:01 AM
Why Is Fingerprinting Such a Sticky Point for Uber?

A former cabbie on the official Uber website writes this:

“With a $672 weekly cab lease, I paid over more than $34,000 a year to lease a Metro Taxi. First I had to make enough money to pay off my cab lease, then work many more hours to generate income. There were weeks and months I made well below minimum wage. With uberX, I can have a living wage, more family time, and drive fewer hours. I call it emancipation.”

Emancipation hit a wall in Austin, Texas recently when the city voted to keep city council-imposed regulations, which would have required cumbersome data reporting and a security check that includes fingerprinting for all Uber drivers.

As a result, and just as they had promised to do, Uber and Lyft, the best-known ridesharing outfits in the country, withdrew from Austin, leaving a dearth of transportation options. The move put 10,000 ridesharing drivers out of business and left citizens scrambling for alternatives. One alternative seems to be driving under the influence. In the first three Uber-less weeks, arrests for drunk driving were up 7.5 percent over the same period the previous year.

An Austin bartender explained to Vocativ.com, “I used to say 'hey are you taking an Uber or Lyft home?' Now it's just three drinks and 'I'm sorry I have to cut you off.'" Apparently, a number of Austinites weren't cut off soon enough.

The withdrawal of these two companies has created a transportation crisis in Austin, and not just for tipsy revelers. So many people have been seriously inconvenienced that the mayor pro tem proposed having the city staff look into public subsidies for other ridesharing outfits that have moved into the city to take advantage of the departure of the big two.

Throwing thriving companies out of town and then asking for taxpayer subsidies to fill the void is the perfect government solution to a government-created problem: “Now we’re going to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize other companies that are doing what Uber and Lyft were doing at no burden to our taxpayers,” Council Member Don Zimmerman was quoted saying in the Austin American newspaper. Reportedly, underground alternatives to Uber and Lyft are not adhering to the fingerprinting regulation.

In a similar vein, having put Uber and Lyft drivers out of business, the Austin Transportation Department is holding job fairs, paid for by the taxpayers, to help out-of-work Uber and Lyft drivers secure new employment. Despite the inconveniences, the retention of the city council ordinance was a decisive victory for two groups: the taxi cartel, which heavily supported the regulations, and people who just like to regulate.

The editorial board of the Austin American newspaper falls into the latter category. It wrote that what was at stake in the vote on the ordinance was "Whether it should be corporations or Austin's elected leaders who write the rules for doing business in the city. The power, in our view, should remain in the hands of the democratically elected officials who represent Austin residents — not private companies with deep pockets." So how's that working out for you, editors?

If you take taxis and regularly converse with drivers, you know that they hate Uber--and with good reason. Uber and Lyft have seriously cut into their incomes. It would be difficult not to sympathize with individual taxi drivers, but not with their favored solution, which is to choke off competition by getting the government to regulate alternatives out of business. The taxi industry is a heavily regulated business, and maybe the solution is to reduce red tape for taxi drivers.

But that is not the tact the taxi industry has taken and all over the U.S. there are attempts to regulate the competition into oblivion. Often these campaigns are carried on in the name of safety concerns, though some regulations are transparently aimed at protectionism. For example, the Massachusetts legislature has a bill that would prohibit these companies from picking up fares at Logan Airport and Boston Convention and Exhibition Center until 2021. If Boston taxis are unavailable, taxis from Cambridge and Somerville are allowed to pick up the slack. But not Uber or Lyft.

I must confess that I was mystified as to why Uber would fight so hard against fingerprinting--after all, some people might genuinely feel safer if drivers are fingerprinted, especially as there have been some well-publicized incidents of unsafe Uber drivers. Uber is reportedly studying the possibility of adopting the practice, but, meanwhile, it is a sticking point. So why the fuss?

It may be that asking drivers to be fingerprinted could threaten the Uber business model (which is what taxi companies really want to do). An article in Inc. magazine explained that requiring drivers to be fingerprinted, a simple but time-consuming chore, could lead to drivers asking to be reclassified as employees. Uber undoubtedly takes this into consideration. Since politicians such as Hillary Clinton have spoken against the gig economy represented by Uber and its ilk, they also undoubtedly know that in litigation over the matter, they would have a good chance of getting a judge ideologically opposed to their business model.

Regarding a passenger's safety concern, a two-tiered model was proposed for Uber-- some drivers would be fingerprinted and some would not. Customers who wanted a fingerprinted driver would pay a higher fee to ride. Like most government solutions, this one was complicated and involved a lot of red tape.

A two-tiered ridesharing company? I've got a better idea. Why not have a one-tiered company, and the potential customer can decide if she feels safe.

Believe it or not, most of us are perfectly able to weigh our safety, price, and convenience concerns and decide whether we want to patronize taxis or ride sharing services.