Humbler is better for Uber and Facebook

Ask for forgiveness, not for permission, has been the attitude of technology companies in the Internet age - disrupt the status quo without slowing for regulation.

The ban on Uber in London reduced the ride-hailing company's new chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi to seek both.

Mr Khosrowshahi's apology, aimed at avoiding the loss of Uber's licence, followed scorn initially poured on the decision by local executives, led by the head of Uber's European operations Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty.

Mr Gore-Coty swung into action with Uber's usual abrasiveness, claiming it showed that "London is closed to innovative businesses that bring choice to consumers".

Mr Gore-Coty seems to be slow on the uptake, so let me put it simply: Cyberspace is dead. The belief that governments should not only get out of the way of a technology that frees citizens but also cannot stop it because it transcends the physical world and democracy in individual countries, has outlived its purpose. When your regulator tells you something, you listen.

Uber's contradictory messages illustrate a problem for tech companies.

Whatever the weakness of cyberspace, it was a philosophy that drove a generation of entrepreneurs, lending them a purpose in challenging governments and big companies. There is a hole where that philosophy used to be.

Cyberspace's prophet was John Perry Barlow, a former cattle rancher in Wyoming and lyricist for American rock band Grateful Dead, who fused the libertarian attitudes of the United States with the convergence of technology and telecommunications into a new territory of digital space. Communities had organised themselves on the US frontier and they would too on the Internet.

"I ask you of the past to leave us alone... You have no sovereignty where we gather," he wrote in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996. It was to be, as Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig put it in his book Code, "the withering of the state that Marx had promised, jolted out of existence by trillions of gigabytes flashing across the ether".

Like Marxism, it has not worked out in practice. Governments did not fold in the face of Mr Barlow's cheeky command.

They face upstarts, as well as pirates and hackers, operating outside borders on remote servers. But companies such as Google are local enough to need permission to operate.

This trend has grown in the Web 2.0 era, with Uber and Airbnb becoming platforms for trading assets such as a ride in a car or a night in an apartment. The virtual realm of cyberspace has become connected to the physical world of regulation. They ought to be linked in democracies or, for all the fine words about digital liberation, it is just a means of evading the law.

The other let-down is that cyberspace was supposed to empower small, self-organising collectives to take on big corporations. It has often done the opposite. Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon are hugely powerful, with deep pockets and high stock market valuations.

Uber is a global company while London's taxi drivers, whether they are right or wrong to resist it, are small fry.

This looks less like the cyberspace of Mr Barlow's imagination than that of author William Gibson, from whose 1984 science-fiction novel Neuromancer the term was taken. Gibson's cyberspace was, as Stanford professor Fred Turner noted in his cultural history From Counterculture To Cyberculture, "a dark hyper-industrialised landscape... dominated by large corporations".

Russia's President Vladimir Putin is an expert in exploiting the liberties of cyberspace. In the language of the disrupter, he said he had launched Russia Today, the news and propaganda broadcaster, to "break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams". A technology that spreads information quickly and cheaply can also propagate fake news.

So, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg brushed off accusations that Russia had manipulated his network to affect the outcome of the US presidential election as "a pretty crazy idea", it did not stick. He admitted last week that, far from existing above the political fray, Facebook had been used to distribute 3,000 targeted advertisements and potentially to "undermine democracy".

He and Mr Khosrowshahi have realised the same truth: They operate not in a technological utopia but in the real world, and must bow to regulators and public opinion.

"There is a high cost to a bad reputation," Mr Khosrowshahi told his Uber staff in London. There is also a high cost to claiming that anything which upsets others is innovative.

If cyberspace is dead, what succeeds it? Technology companies offer services which many want, as the protests about Uber being stripped of its London licence show. But the gulf between Mr Barlow's lofty vision and the reality is stark. A humbler mission - being useful and reliable rather than disruptive - would fit better.

This is the story of each new wave of technology. It starts as a dazzling phenomenon and, as it spreads through the economy, becomes more embedded and less remarkable. When tech companies admit they are not exceptional, the world is making progress.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2017, with the headline 'Humbler is better for Uber and Facebook'. Print Edition | Subscribe