Stop talking about Uber. Start talking about Apple.
So as the latest round of headlines hits — Uber broke the App Store’s terms and bought data on their competitors — the real story isn’t about the company itself. It’s about who else is tangled up with them.
So much of our digital lives is based on trust. We assume nobody is reading our emails, saving our credit card details, tracking our movements. Undoubtedly, some of this is based in naivety — it’s hard to get indignant about exploitation when you don’t know you’re being exploited.
But the majority is based on the fact that technology, at least for most of us, is inextricable from our lives. More people than ever are online, and more services than ever are digital first. The internet has become part of our infrastructure; we trust in it the same way we trust that when we flip a switch, the lights will come on.
This isn’t a problem, in and of itself. The issue comes when the gatekeepers of this technology, the Apples and Googles of the world, violate the trust we’ve put in them — because they are single points of failure in a global system.
There are millions of apps in the world, but the vast majority of them are downloaded via two sources: Apple’s App Store and Google’s Google Play. That means nearly every app download on Earth — 90 billion last year alone — is managed by just two companies. (As mobile usage grows, so too will this power; increasingly, apps are our gateways to companies, charities, and governments)
Both Apple and Google promise their users a secure, curated experience: Google Play offers “the world’s most innovative and trusted apps,” while Apple emphasises “a safe experience for users”. Both companies have clear codes of conduct and clear consequences for violating them — one strike and you’re out.
However, as the latest Uber headlines have made obvious, things aren’t quite as clear-cut as they seem. When the stakes (and the profits) are high enough, these companies are willing to forgive infractions on a massive scale.
When Apple found out Uber was tracking users even after they’d deleted the app, the appropriate response — according to their own terms and conditions — was to remove Uber from the app store and expel them from the Developer Program. This is what happens to the majority of apps that are removed from the App Store, especially ones developed by individuals or small companies.
But that isn’t what happened here. According to the New York Times, Apple CEO Tim Cook simply sat down Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and told him to cut the bad behaviour out. There were no consequences; users weren’t warned, or even notified. Two powerful (white, male) people sat in a board room and swept more than 40 million users’ worth of privacy violations under the rug.
It’s unlikely that Uber is the only company violating terms and services, or that Apple is the only company letting it happen. This is just the only time they’ve been caught in the act — and make no mistake, both sides have been caught.
As government influence wanes and multinational tech corporations grow, it’s tempting to shift the burden of regulation from the state to the private sector — to say that Apple and Google are the new arbiters of what’s right. But, as the latest chapter in the Uber saga shows us, capitalism isn’t the same thing as democracy — and we as a society need to regulate these companies, rather than the other way around.
It’s time to question the monopoly gatekeepers of our technology and whether they have the right principles at heart when they decide what products and services we can use. Even more than that, it’s time to stop trusting these companies blindly and start making sure they live up to their promises.