DoT seeking to block Uber, Ola websites betrays govt's double standard on taxi apps

For anybody who has followed the developments in the radio taxi service segment ever since the horrific Uber rape incident in Delhi in December last year, the latest order from the telecom department banning taxi hailing apps in the city only adds to the confusion.

For the uninitiated, this is what happened: The AAP government in Delhi requested the Department of Telecom (DoT) ban the websites of Uber, TaxiForSure and Ola Cabs - all taxi hailing apps. The DoT, which comes under the central ministry of telecommunications, accepted the request and issued an order banning the websites.

According to an official quoted in a PTI report, "There was a request from the Delhi government to block these websites... an order regarding the ban was issued two three days back." It was as simple as that.

DoT seeking to block Uber, Ola websites betrays govts double standard on taxi apps

AFP

While the AAP government's move is understandable, given the party leaders' over-enthusiasm to do things that are populist, the central government's failure to make up its mind about the issues faced by the technology-driven, sunrise segment is intriguing, if not disappointing.

Consider the developments after the Delhi rape. The initial reaction, a knee-jerk one, from the Central government was to call for a ban all such services across the country.

"The Ministry of Home Affairs has advised the State Governments/ UT Administrations to ensure that the operations of the web based taxi services are stopped and such service providers which are not licensed with the State Governments/ UT Administrations are prohibited to operate till they get themselves registered with the State Governments/ UT Administrations," Union home minister Rajnath Singh told Rajya Sabha on 9 December 2014, days after the rape.

But the rift in the government was out in the open as Union transport minister the same day supported the services. “New developments are taking place in transport systems through electronics. Banning the Railways for train accidents, buses for bus accidents and taxis is not correct,” Nitin Gadkari was quoted as saying in a report in the Indian Express.

The confusion over the government's stance on the technological innovations have been troublesome for the taxi-hailing companies. There is no doubt there are problems with with the model employed by the taxi-hailing apps. Uber has been, in fact, in trouble around the world over shoddy security that makes the passengers vulnerable and operating in violation of taxi laws. But the companies have been working on the issues and bringing about changes.

Uber, which was functioning without a fleet taxi licence, applied for one in Delhi. It started tight driver background checks, which never happened earlier, and introduced additional safety features on the app. In a recent measure, it upgraded its ‘SOS button’, that could be used by passengers to send a real-time alert to the local police control room directly in case of emergency.

Clearly, the DoT's latest order in Delhi, one of the biggest market for all such services in the country, has come at a time when the companies are mending themselves. The new Motor Vehicles Act, though still pending before Parliament, also has proposals to regulate such services and would make it much easier for these companies to work in India. In fact, even the RBI seems to be living up to accepting technological advancements, after it removed the 2-step authentication for payments up to Rs 2000 in March 2015 (this is not applicable for companies like Uber).

Then why this move by the Department of Telecommunication now? Is the bureaucracy playing its role to scuttle an innovation?

Whatever the reason behind the decision, here is the interesting twist in the tale: the websites are still available in Delhi.

"These sites cannot be blocked because of technical issues. We have already given representation to government earlier. This was a general representation. We are giving compliance except in https sites," Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) president Rajesh Chharia has been quoted as saying in the PTI report.

It is high time the governments made up their mind on technological innovations. If not they will only end up looking foolish.

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Updated Date: May 15, 2015 09:28:16 IST

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