The rise of the Ubermensch


In May 2012, Transport for London licensed Uber London Limited as an operator of private hire vehicles in London.

Uber is controversial.  It’s a good example of how new technology can disrupt existing business models in unexpected ways.  One controversy is addressed by Ouseley J in Transport for London v Uber London Limited and others [2015] EWHC 2918 (Admin):  whether the way in which the Uber fare is calculated infringes the criminal prohibition on the use of a taximeter in a London private hire vehicle. Answer – it doesn’t.

What does any of this have to do with Panopticon?  Our usual concerns, broadly speaking, are with access to public sector information, and with information privacy (including its interaction with freedom of expression).  But these fields are fundamentally shaped by developments in the technology that is used for collecting, sharing and using information.  A wider understanding of the legal issues to which those developments can give rise is valuable, even if it takes us a little outside the usual ambit of this blog.

So:  in London there are black cabs, and there are private hire vehicles (PHVs).  PHVs are subject to three-fold licensing:  the operator, the vehicle, and the driver must all be licensed.  One of the restrictions under which PHVs operate is that it is a criminal offence for the vehicle to be equipped with a taximeter: see section 11(1) of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998.  A taximeter is defined by section 11(3) as “a device for calculating the fare to be charged in respect of any journey by reference to the distance travelled or time elapsed since the start of the journey (or a combination of both)”.

Uber operates in London as a licensed PHV operator (though the vehicles in its network include both PHVs and black cabs).  It uses technology that – as Ouseley J points out – was not envisaged when the relevant legislation was introduced in 1998.  “As was agreed, the changes brought about by the arrival of Google, the Smartphone equipped with accurate civilian use GPS, mobile internet access and in-car navigation systems, would not have been within the contemplation of Parliament in 1998.” (Google was in fact incorporated in 1998, and what it has to do with the case is obscure, but let that pass).

In order for the Uber system to operate, both the driver and the customer must have a smartphone, and must download the Uber Driver App and Customer App respectively.  The customer makes a booking using the Customer App.  The booking is transmitted to Uber’s servers in the US, and thence to the smartphone of the driver of the nearest vehicle in London – if that driver does not accept the booking, it is sent to the next nearest vehicle.  When the driver picks up the customer, the driver presses the “begin trip” icon on the Driver App.  At the end of the journey he presses “end trip”.  Signals are then sent to Uber’s servers in the US by the driver’s Smartphone, providing them with GPS data from the driver’s smartphone and time details.  One of the servers (“Server 2”) obtains information from another server about the relevant fare structure, and then calculates the fare and transmits information to the Driver App and the Customer App about the amount charged.  The customer’s credit or debit card is charged for the journey.

Does all this mean that the vehicle is equipped with a taximeter?

No, said Ouseley J, in proceedings brought by Transport for London seeking a declaration that PHVs in the Uber network are not equipped with a taximeter.

The argument before Ouseley J was that the driver’s smartphone, operating using the Driver App, was a taximeter.  But the fatal objection to this argument was that the fare was calculated by Server 2 not by the smartphone, and hence the calculation was done remotely and not in the vehicle itself.  To contravene section 11, it was not sufficient that the calculation was done using information uploaded from the smartphone, and that the calculation was then transmitted to and received on the smartphone.  Hence the smartphone was not a device falling within section 11(3). Moreover, even if the smartphone was a relevant device, the vehicle was not equipped with it; it was the driver who was equipped, and so the prohibition in section 11(1) was not infringed in any event.

Ousely J considered the case-law about the need to adopt an updating or “always speaking” construction of legislation, to take account of technological or scientific developments: see R (Quintavalle) v Secretary of State for Health [2003] UKHL 13, [2003] 2 AC 687.  This case law had no bearing, since the section 11 was in general terms and entirely capable of being applied to modern technology; there was no need to adopt any updating construction of the section.

The Uber case is a useful reminder that controversies about the implications of developments such as big data, cloud computing, and mobile internet access, are not just about privacy and data protection.  Rather, the issues are pervasive and can be expected to affect every corner of the law (and of politics, the economy, and society).

The mobile data devices that we use are constantly interacting with other devices and information storage facilities, including servers.  For the purpose of our daily lives, usually all we are interested in is specific transactions (like booking and paying for a PHV): we do not need to think about the different stages of information processing that underpin the transaction.  But for regulatory purposes, breaking down a transaction into those stages, and understanding when and how each stage takes place, can be essential.  Uber drivers and customers don’t need to think about Server 2:  but if you want to know whether Uber breaks the law, Server 2 is crucial.