Uber Should Heed A Warning From History To Avoid Madame Guillotine

Isn't it funny how the same company can get something so right on the one hand and so wrong on the other?

Uber typifies the disruption a smart app can cause simply by offering people a more convenient way of ordering goods or services and taking out a traditional pain point at the same time. For Uber, the consumer benefit is getting away from standing in the rain with an arm out looking for a cab with its light on or calling a mini cab and being told the standard "with you in five minutes." When your cab arrives, you know what vehicle it should be, who's driving and what the fare is -- you can even pay by PayPal.

This hailing a cab in the digital age service went up hugely in my estimation this week as Uber invited Spotify Premium account holders to sync both accounts so users can choose the music they want to listen to during the ride. It's a very clever way of allowing people to take just a little more control over their cab riding experience. I certainly jumped at the chance this morning, but haven't had a chance to test it out yet.

Trouble is, for all the good they're doing, there are threats to seek out journalists who have a poor opinion of the service and drag up dirt on them. The throwaway line is that it would only cost $100k added menace and arrogance -- which is not only something they could do, but a hundred thousand dollars is a trifling sum they would find in the petty cash tin.

Then there's a confession that staff can pretty much track any user's cab journey any time they feel so inclined.

Uber has reacted by apologising for its thinly veiled threats and has appointed lawyers to overhaul its privacy policy and procedures. It has learned a lot over the past four years, the company said, yet it's funny how start-ups go from being the fresh face on the block and challenging the establishment to arrogant giants. Privacy always seems to be the crucial issue -- just as with Google and Facebook. Remember when they were primarily seen as young, cool companies helping people out on their digital journeys before they got bogged down with Big Brother labels?

While privacy issues haven't exactly stopped the well-established giants of search and social from increasing their bottom line, they do at least show what the market responds to badly to in terms of customer sentiment. Too many people are now too invested in Google and Facebook to make a change but I don't think the same could be said for Uber.

Ironically, I was chatting to a driver of a black cab the other night and he was pretty open to the technology and reckoned the company was a little unlucky to have been the straw the broke the camel's proverbial back. TfL's lenient stance on mini cabs, rickshaws and other issues just seemed to come to a head when Uber became big in London and to his mind, it was only one of several reasons why cabbies have been protesting.

His tone, I must say, does not reflect the general feeling I sense among drivers of black cabs.

So to Uber, as a historian I would remind the company's leaders of the famous words of French revolutionary leader Robespierre who warned as Paris was trying to spread its revolutionary spirit around France and the rest of Europe that thoughts and principles are stronger than soldiers and bayonets because, as he put it, "nobody likes armed missionaries."

Uber would do well to remember that you win people over with a compelling offer, not by threatening to snoop on them and run smear campaigns on anyone who doesn't agree with you.

In fact, Robespierre's advice is made all the more poignant by the fact that he didn't follow it himself. He oversaw "the terror" period the layman associates with the French Revolution and the frequent use of guillotine executions until his words came back to haunt him and he was guillotined without trial.

Uber just might want to think on.

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