Facebook’s free internet.org portal opens in India

Facebook’s internet.org portal, which emerging-market carriers offer for free in order to give new customers a taste of the web, has rolled out in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Mahararashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana. Provided by Reliance Communications, the app includes free access to almost 40 services and information sources. If someone wants to click through to the open web, they need to start paying. This scenario exemplifies the mixed impact of “zero-rating” particular content in emerging markets: it gets people online for the first time, offering potentially life-changing services from job search to farming information, but it also raises net neutrality issues by promoting the idea of Facebook’s portal effectively being the internet.

Indian rape victim sues Uber in US court

The Indian woman whose alleged rape by an Uber driver led to the service being shut down in New Delhi has now sued the car-hailing platform in San Francisco, according to Reuters. The woman, who asked the federal court to protect her identity, said Uber’s service was the “modern day equivalent of electronic hitchhiking”. Uber, which recently reopened its Delhi services after applying for a taxi license, has repeatedly promised to improve its driver-vetting procedures in India. The woman wants unspecified damages from Uber, as well as the installation of in-car cameras and the creation of local customer support centers. The driver, who denies the attack, is currently on trial for rape and kidnapping.

Uber returns to Delhi after grudgingly applying for taxi license

Uber, the tech firm that is most definitely not a taxi company, no sir, has applied for a taxi license in New Delhi so its drivers can legally return to the roads there. However, it’s restarted its services without waiting for the license to be granted.

The taxi-esque outfit said in a blog post that it had applied for a Radio Taxi license in the Indian capital “to reflect our commitment to providing riders with more options for safe and reliable transportation, including the ability to request a Radio Taxi on-demand.”

Reuters reported that Uber resumed services in New Delhi on Friday, but quoted a senior transport official as saying this was not permitted – Uber should be waiting for city authorities to grant the license, which may still not happen, or may only happen after alterations to the application.

New Delhi officials banned Uber in December following a driver’s rape of a passenger, saying Uber’s drivers did not have the proper licenses to provide taxi services. Uber subsequently suspended its operations in the city – a rare thing indeed – in order to review its driver vetting procedures.

However, Uber said in its Thursday post that it thought the New Delhi authorities should rather follow the “Kolkata model,” meaning the decision of a police chief in a Kolkata suburb to designate Uber as an IT company, not a taxi firm.

“We believe this is the progressive model that ultimately puts the safety of consumers first, while recognizing the power of new technologies like Uber that will make city transportation safer,” the tax-hailing platform provider wrote.

Uber added that it had toughened up its driver vetting procedures in New Delhi, adding extra layers of screening.

What is the “missed call” market and why does Twitter want in?

Twitter’s acquisition of Bangalore-based ZipDial gives it access to a fairly massive market for “missed call” services, which many phone users in developing countries use as a low-cost method of accessing marketing deals and services like Twitter

The problem with Uber’s European job promises

The newly humble Uber has made its pitch to city officials around Europe by promising the creation of “50,000 jobs” during 2015 – if mayors and their transport departments play nice and change their taxi regulations.

On Sunday, in a company blog post and a speech by CEO Travis Kalanick at the DLD conference in Munich (embedded below), Uber called for partnerships with European cities that it said would increase efficiency and reduce emissions. All that’s needed is for the cities to make like Kolkata and stop trying to make Uber play by the same rules as taxi firms. On Friday a suburb of the Indian city (not the whole of Kolkata, despite what Uber says) decided Uber was an IT firm rather than a cab service – a decision at odds with that made in other cities such as New Delhi.

Kalanick and his firm also claimed that E.U. taxis frequently operate “off-grid” (which may come as news to his more tightly-regulated rivals) and said the introduction of Uber would “increase transportation providers’ compliance and overall tax revenue for cities and countries across Europe.” Uber also pointed to its recent launch of city data-sharing programs, saying it could help manage growth, reduce congestion and so on.

What’s a job?

For a start, I personally find Uber’s definition of a “job” to be a bit confusing. One slide in Kalanick’s DLD presentation talked about the jobs that have been created in various cities through Uber’s presence: 7,500 in San Francisco, 13,750 in New York, 7,800 in London (according to Kalanick himself; the slide said 10,000). However, Kalanick started off this part of the talk by carefully referring to “equivalent full-time jobs” – “Remember, we have people driving on the Uber platform full-time, and people driving 5-10 hours a week” — then slipped into plain old “jobs”.

So, is this 50,000 actual full-time jobs or a combination of full-time jobs and many part-time jobs that all add up to the equivalent of 50,000 full-time jobs? If tax is the public authorities’ concern, then this distinction makes a significant difference. Someone who’s making a small amount of money on Uber may not, if that’s their only income, be liable for any income tax at all due to minimum thresholds. Of course, this will only account for a certain proportion of the people we’re talking about, but a breakdown is necessary if cities are to look beyond the attraction of the headline figures.

I’m assuming that Uber’s enthusiasm for greater tax revenues is limited to income and sales tax – the company has established a complex network of subsidiaries to ensure that it itself pays very little corporation tax.

Most seriously, we must also remember that these jobs, whatever the numbers, are positions of self-employment that don’t come with any job security or social benefits. This status also creates issues around liability – an implication of the Bidhannagar/Kolkata decision that has been keenly debated.

On a side note, I was also struck by Kalanick’s claim that Uber could give cities “more efficiency on your existing mass transit options”. Yes, tempting people off mass transit and into Uber cars (or, better from an environmental perspective, UberPool cars) would ease the burden on said mass transit, but it would also reduce revenues, meaning that the public option may need to become more expensive or less well-maintained – both good outcomes for the private alternatives.

Political impact

I do agree with Kalanick about protectionism, to an extent at least. The taxi firms that have been giving Uber a hard time and bending local politicians’ ears obviously don’t want price-cutting competition, and rules that limit the numbers of transportation providers in a given city should be up for debate.

That said, I still firmly believe that the traditional cabbies are right to complain about competition that is allowed to operate according to different rules, putting them in a disadvantageous position. City officials do need to formulate new rules, but they need to be very cautiously calibrated to ensure safety and accountability.

What’s more, those officials have to recognise that the kind of employment Uber is pitching marks a big socio-political change, particularly in broadly social-democratic Europe. Kalanick may be in favor of European-style (debatable, I know) social insurance programs such as Obamacare because they “allow people to have more flexible ways to make a living”, but the model he’s pushing would deny such programs any employer contributions. Depending on the country, this would put more of the social insurance burden on the state and/or the self-employed driver.

That’s great for aggregators such as Uber, which are absolved of any responsibility for their not-employees’ healthcare, pension and general social wellbeing, but not so great for the public authorities running such schemes.

Perhaps services such as Uber do represent the future of urban transportation — there is a genuine case to be made for the impact on emissions and efficiency, particularly when it comes to carpooling. But, as they manage the transition into the future, city and national officials had better take the more seductive claims about revenue with a scoop of salt, and think very carefully about the implications.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iayagHygV0Q&w=560&h=315]

This article was updated on January 20th to note that it was only a suburb of Kolkata, not the whole city, that recognized Uber as an IT company.

This Change.org petition response shows how much Uber has changed

Uber has just responded to a group of Change.org petitioners protesting Uber’s background check policies in India, following the alleged rape of a passenger by a driver with an assault record. After the petition reached more than 63,000 signatures, Uber India safety lead Deval Delivala wrote a 600-word apology, explaining the steps the company is taking to improve its driver vetting process in the country.

Thursday night, the company said it will start doing its own background checks on drivers, instead of relying on government certification programs to vet the drivers adequately.

600 words might not seem too long to the average person, but by Uber’s standards this is a humble pie manifesto. It far exceeds the length of apologies or safety explanations Uber has sent to media in the past. I realized when rereading my old stories on Uber that it’s a complete 180 from the company’s response to assault incidents in 2013.

In the Change.org apology, Delivala covered everything from Uber’s reaction to the alleged rape (it was a “deeply sobering reminder that we must always be vigilant”) to what it taught Uber about background checks in India. She explained how the company is trying to strengthen its system, through things like a document verification system and an incident response team. She finished up with a bold promise: “We will repay [your] support with action and live up to the trust that you have placed in us.”

It may just be lip service, but it’s a new, refreshing kind of lip service. As recently as September, Buzzfeed found that Uber sent media the same two sentence response to any situation involving passenger safety, whether a rape, assault, or pedestrian injury. During one of Uber’s biggest scandals when an executive threatened to dig up dirt on journalists, CEO Travis Kalanick famously issued a 13 part tweet apology with very little apology actually included. After the rape of an Indian passenger in December, he published a blog post that was only 100 words.

These may be inadequate responses to terrible incidents, but they’re still far better than Uber’s old way of dealing with safety issues. In 2013, Uber used to claim it wasn’t responsible for its passengers’ safety. It didn’t think it was culpable for the actions of drivers or passengers on its platform (much like Facebook wouldn’t be responsible if one user threatened another on the site). Uber’s then-spokesperson told me that point blank after an SF driver hit a passenger. He said, “We’re not law enforcement…If law enforcement pursues this, we would cooperate. But we’re a technology platform that connects riders and providers, so it’s not our job to investigate.”

The Change.org apology shows how far the company has come. It still has major ethical issues and PR tactics to iron out, but at least it has started accepting responsibility for the incidents that occur through its service.

Samsung finally launches a smartphone running its Tizen OS

After several false starts, Samsung has launched a phone running its Tizen OS. The Z1 goes on sale Wednesday in India.

The Z1 is on a low-spec device sold at budget prices — it’s not meant to compete against the iPhone or Samsung’s high-end Galaxy Note and Galaxy S lines. It will cost 5,700 Indian Rupees, or about $92.

Samsung-Unveils-the-Samsung-Z1-the-First-Tizen-Powered-Smartphone-for-Indian-Consumers

As was leaked in December, the Z1 has a 4-inch, 800 x 480 screen, an unspecified 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, 768MB of RAM, and a 3.1-megapixel rear camera. The Z1 supports Bluetooth 4.1, but it’s a 3G handset and it won’t work on LTE networks.

Some Android One handsets available in India are arguably a better deal — they have basically the same hardware for a similar price, and can take advantage of a better selection of software thanks to the Android platform. So Samsung will rely on bundled content to sway Indian consumers into trying the nascent operating system. Samsung points out that several “important apps” are already available for Tizen, including WhatsApp, which is key for the Indian market.

The Samsung Z1 will be bundled with entertainment apps and services, in a package called “Joy Box.” It includes free three-month subscriptions to services that stream Bollywood songs and movies.

Ultimately, Tizen’s future might not be on handsets. It appears that Tizen is better suited for Samsung’s internet of things efforts — it’s already the operating system for Samsung’s line of Smart TVs and some of its smartwatches.

At the same time [company]Samsung[/company] announced the Z1 on its website, it also published a blog post titled “Tizen in the Big Picture” on its corporate blog. After a casual mention of the Z1 in the first paragraph, the post does not mention smartphones again and instead focuses on Tizen’s advantages for the IoT in devices like wearables, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines.

Samsung-Z1-Product-Specifications1-crop

Uber halts Delhi services to review driver vetting procedures

Uber has suspended its operations in New Delhi, India, so it can conduct a review of its driver vetting and rider feedback mechanisms. This follows the rape of a passenger by an Uber driver and marks a rare occasion on which the taxi firm has done what a local regulator tells it to – the Delhi transport department banned Uber on Monday. In a Thursday blog post, Uber’s India office said it was “implementing measures to ensure that critical rider feedback is escalated immediately and immediate action is taken in every instance,” and “evaluating additional screening options to include background checks on all our driver partners in India above and beyond what is currently required.”

Los Angeles and San Francisco sue Uber, settle with Lyft

Uber’s week from hell continued Tuesday, as the offices of the Los Angeles and San Francisco district attorneys filed lawsuits suing the company for unlawful business practices. The entities settled with Lyft for similar grievances.

There’s no news on where Sidecar stands with the DA offices, despite the fact that Sidecar was also threatened with legal action from the city governments back in September.

The DAs news release, as tweeted by New York Times’ Mike Isaac, says that the two offices are filing a civil consumer protection action lawsuit against Uber “for making false or misleading statements to consumers and for engaging in a variety of business practices which violate California law.” The DAs want multiple product and marketing changes from Uber related to how it describes its background checks, charges consumers, and tracks mileage, according to the filing, which was obtained by Re/Code.

Here are the DAs’ major grievances:

  1. Uber misleads customers about its safety procedures, especially in regards to background checks and the “Safe Rides” fee it charges consumers.
  2. Uber hasn’t submitted its mileage tracking technology for review, so the government can ensure it’s not ripping off passengers.
  3. Uber drops off and picks up passengers at the airport without airport approval. Further more, the fee it charges consumers to do so is “misleading.”

The DAs reportedly want Uber to pay restitution to customers for its $1 “Safe Rides” fee, which covers the cost of Uber’s background checks. Since Uber’s background checks aren’t as rigorous as the ones taxis are required to do, the city governments believe the Safe Rides charge misleads customers.

The DAs also want the ridesharing companies to submit their mileage to state government to ensure accurate tracking.

Lyft was amenable to the DAs’ requests, which is why it settled for $500,000, according to Forbes reporter Ellen Huet. In a statement, Lyft spokeswoman Erin Simpson said, “After months of productive conversations, Lyft has entered into an agreement with District Attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles that demonstrates our shared commitment to consumers and innovation.”

Uber, it appears, was not. When reached for comment, Uber spokeswoman Eva Behrand said:

Californians and California lawmakers all agree–Uber is an integral, safe, and established part of the transportation ecosystem in the Golden State. Uber has met with the District Attorneys to address their concerns regarding airport operations, the uberPOOL product, background checks, and operation of the app. We will continue to engage in discussions with the District Attorneys.

The SF and LA DA offices have been considering such action for months now after raising concerns about ridesharing companies’ background check practices. The two institutions threatened Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar in September with legal action if they didn’t change the way they described their background checks to the public. Since transportation networking companies aren’t held to the same rigorous background check standards as cab companies in California, they miss some drivers’ criminal records.

This post was updated several times Tuesday afternoon as more information became available.