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London regulators find Uber "not fit and proper": A most damningly British indictment

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on September 22, 2017

From The Travis Shrugged Desk

On three occasions in the past twelve months, I’ve been woken up by a flurry of early morning text messages from friends in London.

The first, obviously, was after the Brexit vote. The second, after Trump was elected. The third came this morning after London’s transport regulators (Tfl) ruled that Uber is not “fit and proper” to continue operating in the Capital.

“Not fit and proper.” For the benefit of American readers, that’s the second most damning indictment in British english -- five whole levels worse than “not up to snuff”, two higher than “acting like a bunch of tossers” and only a hairsbreadth lower than the worst possible ranking: “bang out of order.”

The result: Absent a successful appeal, Uber will no longer be able to operate in the one remaining European market in which Travis Kalanick et al are not entirely, irredeemably despised.

I don’t have much to say about the ruling itself, except, well, duh. Uber has failed to perform adequate criminal background checks on drivers, have gleefully built tools to fool regulators, has boasted of lawbreaking as a business model (LAABM), has stolen the medical records of a rape victim in India, has hired ex-CIA spies to smear opponents, has allegedly stolen billions of dollars in trade secrets, has degraded female drivers, has failed to ensure a living wage for its contractors and has fostered a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination at every level of its global organization.

I’d say fit and proper was a good old British understatement. In most other European countries they’d have gone full caca boudin.

(As if that charge sheet wasn’t bad enough, this morning Uber’s staunchest non-employee defender appeared in the form of…. Paul Graham. If having that guy still defending their awful behaviour isn’t enough to send Uber off to the hague, I don’t know what is.)  

What is worth noting though is the timing of Tfl’s decision, coming so soon after Kalanick’s “resignation” as CEO and his replacement with Dara “love that guy!” Khosrowshahi. To read much of the coverage in and around Silicon Valley, not to mention that in the New York Times and other major outlets staffed by ex-Valley bloggers, you’d think that Khosrowshahi’s arrival was the answer to all of Uber’s prayers. That’s certainly what the company’s board and investors want you to think (at least those who aren’t still on Team Travis).

Tfl’s ruling should remind those defenders what the rest of the world has known all along: Uber was a company built by Travis Kalanick in his own awful image. Many of the worst behaviors at the company -  right down to last week’s sexist ads in India -- came not from Kalanick himself but from employees who have internalised the question “what would Travis do?” Uber isn’t one man, it’s a gigantic multinational corporation staffed by people who looked at Travis Kalanick and his fellow bro-xecutives and said “yep, those are the guys I want to work for.” That culture can’t and won’t be fixed by hiring one guy -- and in fact it’s uncertain whether it could even be fixed by unhiring thousands of other guys. At some point if you remove all that’s awful inside Uber you’ve removed all that’s Uber inside Uber.

Sure enought, already Uber has responded to the news from London in the same old Ubery way, with UK GM Tom Elvidge channelling Donald Trump by attacking London mayor Sadiq Khan. Specifically Elvidge blamed Khan for “cav[ing] in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice.”

It’ll be interesting, though, to watch how far New Uber goes with its old “attack the politicians, flout the ruling” playbook. Certainly that approach has been effective in other markets (although not, it should be noted, in European ones) but it’s also one that risks positioning the company as an obnoxious American tourist who refuses to play by the rules. Uber should ask Starbucks how well that plays in the UK.

The irony can’t be lost on Khosrowshahi that responding too aggressively to TFL will only reinforce the fact that Uber hasn’t changed a bit, regardless of who’s in the CEO seat. But not responding aggressively enough might mean losing the company’s largest European market. The dilemma is further complicated by the fact that Travis Kalanick remains in control of Uber’s board and so remains Khosrowshahi’s boss.

Still, I suppose Khosrowshahi must have anticipated challenges like these when he looked at Travis Kalanick and said “yep, that’s the guy I want to report to.”