The Uber question you probably never asked

In January 2016, taxi drivers in Paris went on strike to protest against Uber and governmental charges

When business supply meets society demands, it can sometimes stray into rule-breaking territory.

Many people use Uber – including some politicians and members of the police force, according to an Uber driver I spoke to recently. But while some are great Uber enthusiasts, others claim the business is ethically challenged. 

Uber, which was founded as UberCab in 2009 and came to Australia in 2012, reports that by the end of 2015 it provided more than one billion rides around the world. 

Users of UberX, the budget version of Uber, say it is faster, cheaper and better than taxis.

Uber cannot be hailed on the street, pick up passengers from taxi ranks or be pre-booked – it can only be requested at the time when the ride is required through the Uber smartphone app. Therefore, says Uber, it is not offering taxi or hire-car services, so does not come under the ambit of existing Australian laws that regulate the taxi or hire-car industries. 

In Australia, to date, only New South Wales and the ACT have introduced interim ridesharing legislation that makes driving with Uber legal. But Western Australia and Tasmania are expected to do the same this year and other states are undertaking reviews.

In the meantime, Uber is still regarded as illegal in many jurisdictions, and Uber drivers have been charged and fined for illegally offering a taxi service. Uber is reportedly paying these fines.

This creates a dilemma for Uber users in states and countries where the service is illegal. Is it ethical to do what will lead someone else to break the law? 

Does using Uber undermine the rule of law in jurisdictions where driving for Uber is illegal?
This dilemma appears in many ethical problems. For instance, you may remember the anti-corruption efforts of the 1980s and 1990s, when many of the legal frameworks focused on the demand side.

In those days, it was all about unscrupulous, unethical and greedy public officials demanding bribes from companies. And those companies had little to fear, as they were not really breaking the law.

The 1997 OECD Anti-Bribery Convention focused attention on not only the demand side, but also the supply side of corruption, and we have since seen some improvements. It provided standards to criminalise the offering of bribes to foreign public officials, thus evening out the field. And this makes sense. We should hold accountable not only those who receive bribes but also those who offer them.

Today, some anti-bribery legislation (e.g. the UK Bribery Act 2010) goes even further, with a strict liability offence for companies that fail to prevent bribery by their employees, subsidiaries, service providers and agents.

While bribery is a lot more serious, has more far-reaching consequences and involves criminal offences, we can use it as an analogy for the case of Uber. In Australian states and territories where driving for Uber is illegal, the passenger does not break the law. But is using Uber, in contrast to driving for Uber, OK? 

Does using Uber undermine the rule of law in jurisdictions where driving for Uber is illegal? If our behaviour as passengers leads to drivers’ non-compliance with the law, do we have a duty not to undertake such behaviour? Or is it just that the law has not caught up with technology and societal shifts, as it is normal for the law to lag behind our societal values?

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The taxi industry wants government to enforce the rules; Uber wants to change the rules; and we need to be sure of what the rules are. 

As a society, we need to also consider whether rule-breaking is an inevitable part of development and progress, while we wait for the law to catch up with technology and practice. 

We need to be mindful of the implications of condoning law-breaking as part of progress, because it is the rule of law that forms the foundation of our progress, justice and development. Maybe law-making also needs a disruption that will allow it to be responsive to the demands and supplies of our times.

Dr Eva Tsahuridu is CPA Australia’s policy adviser, professional standards and governance.

Read next: Is bribery ever okay?

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