Features Monday, December 08, 2014 - 05:30
By Rupali Mehra The reality check dawned on me as news broke of a young executive who booked an Uber cab via her mobile app to get home after a party and later was raped by the driver of the cab. Should I still believe in the ‘sharing economy’ model on which companies like Uber thrive? Should I still stick to the ‘carpooling for larger good’ argument? Should I book a homestay via the community network sites when I’m travelling? Hell, should I even book a radio cab if I’m returning home late tonight? What happened to the Delhi based executive could happen to anyone, anywhere. Turns out the rape accused is a serial offender and has been arrested for sexual assault in 2011. There are also conflicting reports on whether the credentials of the accused driver were thoroughly verified by the company. But apart from the public outrage, and minute by minute updates as the accused is taken from the police station to court, the incident raises serious questions about safety of community based apps. As you read this millions of pictures, opinion, emotions, cars and even homes being shared across the world via apps at the tap of our index finger. Immediacy, easy accessibility and the absence of physical distance make us feel safe. It also camouflages the awkwardness and does away with the trouble of having to personally interact with a stranger for accessing a service. And that’s the blind spot. Millions of users across the world connect through community based digital platforms like Uber and carpooling.com to travel. Lakhs of others open up their homes to absolute strangers through accommodation sites like Airbnb and MorningCroissant. Undoubtedly, at the heart of the sharing model lies Trust. But the backbone is based on the individual’s personal rating. The rating system allows both sides – the user and service provider – to grade each other. The better the experience, the better the rating. Uber, for example, works on the simple principle of demand and supply - connecting a registered passenger with a registered driver. Much like an accommodation service that connects a guest with a host. Logically this is a model that should work. It does. 99 per cent of the time. But should there even be a one percent margin for error. And who pays when things go awry – when the code is violated? Don’t mistake me. I’m not for once against community based apps. In fact over the last three years I’ve relied on these apps to travel and stay across six nations with people I would never have met otherwise. And I’m all the richer for it. Nor do I agree with the hurriedly pronounced declaration by the National Commission for Women that Uber cabs must shut shop in India. That doesn’t clear the company, nor does it address the basic issue – that of a solid verification process. It turns out, unlike other radio taxis, Uber relies on GPS of the driver’s mobile. So if the mobile is switched off, like it was in the Delhi incident, the cab is untraceable. A stung Uber, in its press release says, “we work with layers of safeguards such as driver and vehicle information, and ETA-sharing to ensure there is accountability and traceability of all trips that occur on the Uber platform”. But that’s certainly not enough. Nor is the announcement that Uber plans to suspend the user account of the accused driver. The real question is, are community based apps as safe as they are made out to be? Or have they grown too fast for their own good? Uber itself, according to the company’s CEO Travis Kalanick, is ‘six times bigger today than 12 months ago’. Airbnb but its own admission has eight lakh listings across 33,000 cities. Carpooling.com, through its “human-centred technology” brings together more than 1.4 million drivers and passengers. In this expansion frenzy is due diligence slipping through the cracks, unnoticed, until it blows in the face? The Uber cab rape shocker has hit headlines across nations, being read by millions who rely on shared services via mobile apps. Twitterati and facebookers are outraged at Uber’s negligence. Apps based on the ‘sharing economy’ model have had their fare share of run-ins with existing laws that were framed way before such apps were conceived. But today the ‘Trust’ code has taken a serious beating. So is this the beginning of the end for sharing based economic models? I hope not. The rape in an Uber cab will – and should - force companies to serious tighten their safety nets. Else they run the risk of serious civil liability, apart from loss of face. But the incident also comes as an eye opener to end users - men and women, you and me. An instant, digitally secure, user friendly interface is certainly not synonymous with safety in the real world. Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability on the same.

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