Tech Firms Rally Their Customers to Fight Restrictive Regulations
(p. A23) The nasty battle between Uber and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio over New York City's proposed cap on livery vehicles has ended, at least for now, with the city and the ride-hailing giant agreeing to postpone a decision pending a "traffic study." There's no doubt who won, though. The mayor underestimated his opponent and was forced to retreat.
It wasn't just conventional pressure -- ads, money, lobbying -- that caught the mayor off guard. Uber mobilized its customers, leveraging the power of its app to prompt a populist social-media assault, all in support of a $50 billion corporation. The company added a "de Blasio's Uber" feature so that every time New Yorkers logged on to order a car, they were reminded of the mayor's threat ("NO CARS -- SEE WHY") and were sent directly to a petition opposing the new rules. Users were also offered free Uber rides to a June 30 rally at City Hall. Eventually, the mayor and the City Council received 17,000 emails in opposition. Just as Uber has offloaded most costs of operating a taxi onto its drivers, the company uses its customers to do much of its political heavy lifting.
Uber's earlier strategy to win entry into the Portland, Ore., market followed a similar pattern. When the city wasn't allowing the company to operate taxis, Uber exploited rules that allowed it to act as a delivery company, and distributed free ice cream around town. Using data on these deliveries, the firm shrewdly recruited recipients as pro-Uber citizen lobbyists, pressuring local officials to allow their cars to pick up passengers. It worked.
Many tech firms now recognize the organizing power of their user networks, and are weaponizing their apps to achieve political ends. Lyft embedded tools on its site to mobilize users in support of less restrictive regulations. Airbnb provided funding for the "Fair to Share" campaign in the Bay Area, which lobbies to allow short-term housing rentals, and is currently hiring "community organizers" to amplify the voices of home-sharing supporters. Amazon's "Readers United" was an effort to gain customer backing during its acrimonious dispute with the publisher Hachette. Emails from eBay prodded users to fight online sales-tax legislation.
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(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date AUG. 6, 2015.)