Why should Elon Musk take responsibility for Uber if he was at the company when it became too big to fail? A little ethics lesson from Uber Toronto
Most of us don’t expect the very top of companies to weigh in on how we should live our lives — we do, however, expect leaders to set out a socially responsible business strategy.
That attitude was articulated by Netflix chief and fellow tech billionaire Reed Hastings in 2016. The Netflix CEO explained that leaders in the tech industry are supposed to “share and invest in social purpose projects.”
The role of Uber Toronto’s new CEO, John Tsang, is different. Since he started as CEO in August 2016, the local Uber subsidiary — which he heads up — has constantly been in the headlines over its controversial policies and business model. This week, a report pointed out that in some cities Uber has illegal black-taxi services because it can’t legally offer the service as a passenger carrier.
Many of these issues are on its ride-sharing platform, which has disrupted the taxicab and taxi-booking industries in Toronto. Tsang says Uber’s role as a disruptive brand was never intended and will always be a challenge. In his interview with the BBC, he said the effect of a disruptive brand such as Uber on local taxi and cab-booking services is “irrelevant.” The taxi and cab-booking industries have only themselves to blame if their market seems under threat from “rivals that come along and kill off our business.”
“I guess we could put up a bunch of billboards and say, ‘This is what you’re missing out on, and don’t you want to experience a better life?’ And they’d come running up to you saying, ‘Come in, I want to trade,’ ” he said.
Rather than give other people’s lives the benefit of a disruption, Tsang says Toronto’s taxi and cab-booking industry should just accept the fact that the Toronto people don’t want a second Uber service and start to change. While Uber Toronto’s aim is to eventually help others pay for their rides, the key to its model is helping people find a “better” ride than the one provided by the cab-booking and taxi industry.
Tsang’s quoted words seem an odd echo of Hastings’ comment about disruptors. Uber’s principles are founded on disrupting the “taxi industry” and robbing taxi industry workers of income, according to Tsang. Uber Toronto is operating while the city and industry lawyers fight through courts to ensure Uber’s taxicab-booking activities are illegal in Canada, while a federal court decision that its black-taxi functions are also illegal could come as soon as this week. Uber, which says it will appeal any court loss, says it only stops taxi pickups in Toronto based on a human receptionist’s request, which looks very different to that of its competitors.
“The taxi industry will probably end up fighting this in court for years,” says Tsang. “I just don’t know how long it’s going to take — or the outcome.”
Tsang, however, has not shown any signs of give up. After taking over at Uber, he said he would examine and learn from all of his predecessors — perhaps a signal that even though his position is in the public eye, the brand-new Uber Toronto is still holding true to its radical, disruptive mission. He’s been watching the stories that the taxi industry has been telling since Uber’s arrival in Canada — stories that would spell doom for all who are caught up in the fray — and he wants to use that to his advantage.
“Uber is hard, it’s hard, it’s hard. They’ve had a really difficult time, they’ve had a difficult year,” he said. “So we’ve been watching how they’ve done things, particularly with respect to the city of Toronto, and what they’ve been up to with the media.”
The app company’s approach has been to deny allegations of wrongdoing, refusing to run ads to put people in the mind of their customers. Its justifications for ongoing case management hearings, for its claim that it wants the courts to decide its fate instead of judges, and for its attempts to dismiss a lawyer arguing for his client — not to mention its headstrong approach to reputation management — has ruffled feathers.
But Tsang has learned from his predecessors’ mistakes. He says he will focus on every