In defense of Uber in India

December 8, 2014, 8:36 PM UTC
Photo courtesy: Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s pretty frustrating to follow the press coverage of Uber rape case in India on both sides of the world. What is a terrible tragedy — the details are awful and stomach churning — has played out in the press along three very predictable directions.

  • Meme #1 — Uber is a company that likes to play loose with the rules and this is yet another example (mostly tech press in the U.S.)
  • Meme #2 — India is a country which has a problem with women’s safety (both press here and in India)
  • Meme #3 — This is another example of why “foreign” companies can’t be trusted in India (from Delhi government, various Indian influencers)

All of these are loose caricatures playing to existing biases and it’s frustrating because it ignores the underlying realities of these parts of the world and what could have been done to prevent this.

First, some history. India has had a string of similar tragic incidents for many years. When I was at Microsoft Hyderabad in 2005, we started having security guards accompany women home late at night after a string of incidents where women in tech companies were assaulted by their shuttle drivers. As I was writing this post, I found more incidents as recent as 2013. This has been happening for a long time now and India has been grappling with some hard social/cultural questions on why it has been unable to stop this. This is why a lot of us tell women traveling to India to be much more aware of their surroundings — the social calculus you employ when you do something as trivial as jumping into a cab or asking a stranger for a favor isn’t the same in every part of the world.

The idea of Uber doing background checks and “filtering out” this driver with an arrest record is laughable for anyone who has dealt with government records in India. First, there is no reliable way to run a check on someone in most parts of the world and second, even if they did, a small bribe in the right place will fix most records.

A side anecdote on how such records work. Most of my school friends didn’t have to go to the Indian equivalent of the DMV to get a license when they hit the right age — they just got a “friend” to get it for them for around $10. I remember being grumpy with my dad when he made me actually take the test. Not because my dad had some moral high ground but more because he didn’t want to spend the money on a bribe (note — that’s my dad in a nutshell for you). India is trying to fix this and anti-corruption has really captured the public’s imagination in the last few years but it’s a long road. Paying off a government official is still very much the status quo (as I find out every time I need something from them).

A reasonable person may ask — shouldn’t Uber have covered their bases anyway and asked the police? In a twist that is probably going to embarrass the Delhi cops, it turns out that Uber actually did get a police “character certificate” for the driver. But as I said above, no one really takes this seriously and Uber shouldn’t have either (more on this later).

The Delhi government banning Uber as “unsafe” smells of a knee-jerk PR reaction against a company perceived to be “foreign.” Delhi has thousands of taxi drivers, cab companies and private transport vehicles — no one bothers asking for any sort of real background check for anyone driving these things. I have friends who own cab companies — their “driver check” is asking the driver whether he has a license. And even if everyone suddenly had great checks, let’s not forget that a lot of the recent assault cases in India were first-time offenders. This is just the way business is done in other parts of the world and people generally accept this as the status-quo and guard against it.

Uber with its use of technology is way safer than any other cab company or any generic cab driver who hustles you at the airport. I would ask anyone in India or visiting there to trust it (and other startups like OlaCab that use tech to power transport) way more than some cab driver off the street or some company which has three beat-up cars and a phone number in the yellow pages.

What really happened here is a tragedy due to India’s inherent social dynamics and problems with sexual assault as well as it’s inability to have a efficient ID system. *That* is why a young woman was harmed and that’s what we should be focusing the spotlight of mainstream attention on.

However, there are still several questions we here need to answer.

For us in the tech world — How do we scale services that we take for granted when the social/cultural foundations don’t exist in other nations or there are other social dynamics at play? Do we say “Customers need this service even if we can’t guarantee what we can in the first world?” Or do we take a more nuanced approach (and what does that even mean)? I don’t know.

For Uber — They must be feeling under siege now in a situation where they did more than any Indian cab company (and way, way more in working with law enforcement promptly). Props to them but they could/should have done more. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in India would know that background checks just don’t work and a certificate from the cops is just paperwork. How do you actually protect your riders in these parts of the world by going above and beyond what law enforcement can do? Someone suggested that Uber adopt a “more Indian way” of background checking by asking a few neighbors of each driver — as silly as it sounds, a crazy, unscaleable, localized approach like this might yield way better results.

If you can’t actually have effective background checks in less developed parts of the world, how do you tell your riders that before they step into a car? Culturally, how do you react to this by actually looking into doing more than just set up a bunch of meetings with the Delhi home ministry/ police department which establishes a process that looks great on paper? How do you build this concern into your company DNA? It’s way easier to get big numbers to go up (riders, trips, passengers, cities) than protect against the rare, catastrophic incident. I don’t know but I hope Uber uses the same ingenuity it has shown in developing their core service in tackling these questions.

The real media tragedy here is the burial of the core story. A young woman was viciously assaulted and still managed to show incredible bravery in the seconds (taking a photo, recording the number) and hours afterward. Society failed her.

Sriram Krishnan currently works on mobile monetization products for Facebook, and previously worked on cloud solutions for both Yahoo and Microsoft.