One of the threats every emerging innovation seems to face this days is…well, it’s being a threat. The status quo can be a comfortable place for those who are within its bubble, and when something comes along to challenge it, there is a trend to try and regulate it away. Whether it’s Old-School Authors vs Amazon, Cable Television vs Netflix or Old-School Music vs iTunes, every time a new technology, app, business model or idea comes along, someone tries to squash it.
Today’s exhibit: Uber. The lift-sharing service is currently facing a lawsuit asserting that is violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by turning away customers with guide dogs or service animals. From the write-up at Re/Code:
“In a decision late Friday night, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins in San Jose, Calif., said the plaintiffs could pursue a claim that Uber was a “travel service” subject to potential liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The judge also rejected Uber’s arguments that the plaintiffs, including the National Federation of the Blind of California, lacked standing to sue under the ADA and state laws protecting the disabled.”
I think this is such a slippery slope to me. I think that some industries do need regulation. There are sometimes health codes, building codes or zoning by-laws that an amateur might not know about. Even in something like publishing, there can be tax codes, business licenses and so on (the advice I got about my own nascent Kindle efforts was to report all income, because if the taxman finds out I didn’t, I’ll be in big trouble).
But I think that sometimes, regulation can go to far and there needs to be a distinction between casual applications and business ones. For example, in the pre-Uber (indeed, pre-Internet) days, my university had a popular bulletin board hung in the student centre where people could, amongst other things, negotiate ride shares. I think there is a difference between ‘I am driving to Toronto on such and such day and if anyone wants to help me pay for gas, I have room in my car for two other people’ and ‘I am setting up a business where I will make commercial profit from offering rides to the city for university students.’ I think there is a difference between ‘I will offer my services as a freelance tutor and make a little extra money working with kids in my community’ and ‘I will open a school for hundreds of kids and therefore must comply with Ministry standards.’
I’m not sure what the right decision is for Uber. I know that issues like this are one of the reasons the heavily regulated taxi industry in my city has tried to shut them down. But I also know that the taxi industry is motivated less by altruistic concern over people with disabilities and more by the fact that this new business model threatens their existing one. I don’t think that sort of quashing should be encouraged, and I think we do have to be careful that we don’t impede reasonable progress by tying up every potential use in red tape and regulation.