Today we live in a world that is built around handheld devices that satisfy the freedom of instant access and gratification. This new reality means we may have to sacrifice some privacy and sometimes potential safety, for convenience, a controversial trade-off perfectly embodied by the successful car service Uber. Simply open an app on your phone and a private ride will be at your exact location in minutes to take you a few miles or across the city. Government regulation is trying to match Uber’s fast expansion with a perceived need to protect the collective safety of citizens from strangers showing up to give you a ride. More and more these two conflicting worlds are colliding.
On May 9, 2016, Uber stopped service in Austin when voters failed to relax regulations put in place last December that mandated fingerprint-based background checks for Uber drivers. The car service stands by its private background check process and says the Austin regulation makes operation in the city impossible. But Austin, along with many other cities, believes it needs to more closely license and regulate this activity for the general safety of the public. Uber says these regulations are “duplicative,” “expensive” and “take too long” for part-time drivers who are looking to make a few bucks.
Uber and the City of Houston are in a similar battle, with Uber threatening to leave the fourth-largest city in the country over the same issues. State representatives and senators have publicly stated they will get involved to block these measures. Texas House of Representatives member Matt Rinaldi tweeted, “Local control turns to local tyranny again in Austin,” and State Senator Charles Schwertner of Georgetown said he will introduce legislation to take away such regulatory powers from Texas cities.
As more of our lives move online and onto our phone, opportunities abound for capitalists like Uber, just as they did during the Industrial Revolution. The consumer for the most part benefits with lower costs, more information and more alternatives. Unfortunately, the same environment provides potential opportunity for predators and con artists. Stay tuned as this and many other issues of personal freedoms in the Information Age collide with the government’s growing need to try to protect society. What an exciting time to be a part of the legal world!
Bret L. Strong
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