It's HK's latest trend, but is Uber legal?

It's HK's latest trend, but is Uber legal?

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Uber has a lot of supporters in Hong Kong, but it's not all legal.
Photo: Reuters

It’s simple. You download the app, see whether your choice of car is available in the area, and then request it to drive you to your destination. That’s the beauty of Uber, a platform that connects passengers to drivers with a simple few taps. Based in San Francisco, Uber began expanding internationally in 2012, and now operates in 58 countries and 300 cities worldwide. But that’s not to say it’s all completely legal.

Paris was the first city that Uber began operating in outside of the US. UberPOOL, a service that originally facilitated car-pooling, morphed into UberPOP in early 2014. That’s when questions of legality started creeping in. Claiming that UberPOP was essentially now a taxi service that called itself a ride-sharing service, French authorities considered banning UberPOP.

 This summer, taxi drivers took it upon themselves to voice their discontent, turning on Uber cars and drivers, and in some cases, creating hostage-like situations. In the aftermath, the French government charged two top Uber executives on charges of helping unlicensed taxis cheat regulations and Uber decided to suspend services.

This summer also saw Hong Kong police take action against Uber, arresting several employees and drivers. They indicated that in the event of an accident, Uber passengers could not be offered insurance coverage under Hong Kong’s existing laws. So, to protect consumers against potential grievances, the police conducted a series of raids.

While Uber faces legal challenges across the world, there is considerable support for the company and what it offers. In a recent survey conducted by YouGov, 55 per cent of interviewed Hongkongers called for the government to legalise Uber.

The Philippines became the first country to legalise ride-calling apps. Supporters point to the various safety features employed, the business it brings to Uber drives, and the overall positive experiences. Yet these positive aspects cannot hide the fact that there are numerous questions of legality that have yet to be addressed.

Uber claims that it has an open attitude to communicating with local governments to work around existing laws, but it often acts boldly, entering new markets before it attempts to talk to the local government. In the event of a legal battle, Uber then points to its strong support network, and fights against these very laws. More often than not, the victims of these legal clashes are the drivers.

But governments are not entirely blameless. As startups find demands within society that have yet to be met and start filling in these gaps, governments around the world need to find a way to integrate these new services and ideas into societies. Hong Kong is looking into forming an “innovation and tech bureau” to tap into technology, but this will result in more Uber-like companies who will challenge the existing legal framework.

There must be channels of communication where both the government and companies are clear about what they are setting out to achieve.  As our world becomes more technology-orientated,  these early problems need to be addressed and used as examples for future ones.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
It's HK's latest trend, but is Uber legal?

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