Categories: Mobile Apps


London has pulled the license of ride-hailing mobile app Uber. In the shutdown, city officials argued that the company lacked corporate responsibility around public safety. Uber has long tried to get around these sorts of complaints by pitching itself as just a tech “platform” for connecting drivers and riders.

But the incredible rise of Uber shows that there’s more to it than just that. A landmark court case showed that Uber’s drivers weren’t just casual contractors, but employees. As a result, Uber became responsible for worker protections and benefits. Clearly, Uber isn’t just a piece of technology. Otherwise Italy, Denmark, Finland, Taiwan, Hungary and China wouldn’t have raised issues with it. It’s a company, and that means it needs to abide by local regulations.

Uber isn't just a mobile app. It's a business.

Uber isn’t just a mobile app, but a business.

Mobile apps need to start thinking like businesses

Home-sharing app AirBnB faced similar crackdowns when people protested that it was muscling in on hotel territory without paying the same fees. The company responded by starting to collect an “occupancy tax”. In some areas it also collects and remits taxes on behalf of hosts. However, people still question whether residential properties in residential areas should be treated basically as hotels. Local authorities and government are considering legislation and ordinances. While the legislation could fall in AirBnB’s favor, it’s also possible that they may find their business in a tough spot.

Is your mobile app above the law? Probably not.

But smaller things can put the future of an app into question. In 2015 officials asked traffic app Waze to remove a police-tracking function over potential criminal intent. Russia pulled LinkedIn for refusing to relocate Russian user data on Russian servers. In China, VPN apps that get around the China’s “Great Firewall” have been shut down due to legality issues. The apps helped users access content restricted by China’s censorship laws, which currently block access to Google, Facebook and many news services.

Technology isn’t neutral when people are involved

Is an AirBnB a hotel? Often, the law says yes.

Is an AirBnB a hotel? The law says yes.

Arguing that technology is neutral isn’t enough. As apps became part of our everyday experience, they have a real impact on our lives. Uber’s size comes with responsibilities. Users trust it to provide a safe experience comparable to the cabs it’s replacing. AirBnB can’t simply build up a distributed hotel business without meeting the regulatory responsibilities of a hotel chain. And other apps need to function in line with the rules, regulations and laws of the countries they’re active in.

Sure, mobile apps can be used for illegal behavior. But arguing that they’re a neutral party doesn’t cut it. App developers and creators need to consider that what they’re doing isn’t just about technology. Like any business, they’re providing a service for real people, and they owe it to them to do it by the book. If they don’t, they run the risk of failing their customers, or even worse, falling foul of the law.



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