Monday 1 July 2019

Regulatory icebreakers

Not too long ago, Canada’s Northwest Passage was effectively unnavigable. The ice was simply too thick for sailing ships to make it through during the too-short summers.

And while Netflix’ excellent miniseries The Terror brings an additional supernatural element to the horrors of being icebound on the Royal Navy’s Arctic expeditions of the mid-1800s, the reality was awful enough.

It took more modern icebreakers, and global warming, to make the route more viable.

And for one part of the global regulatory pack-ice, it took Uber.

Imagine, if you will, a heavily armoured icebreaking cargo ship designed to plough through the Northwest Passage. Once the path through the ice is cut, other ships can follow more easily. The icebreaker will get its cargo through first but at a much higher cost per container than the ships that follow in its wake. The armour and the fuel to push through the ice do not come for free.

Over the past decade, Uber has been breaking a lot of regulatory ice.

Most here will remember Uber’s 2016 Parliamentary hearings. Uber’s Richard Menzies had to explain to a Parliamentary committee, some members of whom may have gotten just a little too accustomed to chauffeured services, that there was no risk of someone trying to flag down an Uber as though it were a taxicab. The cars could only be hired using an app on a phone.

Perhaps because our MPs so badly embarrassed themselves in those hearings, New Zealand wound up with workable regulations. It would have been hard for Parliament to recover from a second demonstration of technological incompetence.

But New Zealand is only one country in a big world. And most other countries start with far worse policy than New Zealand. Their pack-ice is thicker than ours.
I go through some of the regulatory ice-breaking that Uber has undertaken, and note the work yet necessary in sorting out reclassification risk.

I conclude:
Principles-based regulation establishing safe harbours against reclassification risk for those providing greater benefits to contractors seems a useful path forward but the path to get there is not free and clear. It takes an icebreaker.

In other areas we talk of first-mover advantages. That is not the case when we think about icebreakers. Breaking the ice is something of a public good. It is a difficult job, and I expect the terrors of trying to make Uber’s model work in France were only slightly less terrifying than being icebound in the Northwest Passage.

But once the ice is broken, anyone can follow. In those cases, there is some merit in being a fast-follower – unless someone is willing to pay an awful lot to have their container be first through the passage. Those of us along for the ride might raise a glass from time to time to the icebreakers.
An ungated version will be up on the Initiative's site in due course and will be linked at that point [Update: it's here].

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