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Uber can't afford to be an ugly American abroad

  • Adam Minter

    Bloomberg

New York, United States | Wed, March 28, 2018 | 12:13 pm
Uber can't afford to be an ugly American abroad This photo illustration taken on March 26, 2018 shows the Grab and Uber booking application seen on a smart phone in Singapore. Singapore-based ride-hailing firm Grab announced on March 26 it has bought US rival Uber's business in Southeast Asia, ending a fierce battle for market share in the region. (AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Anybody who commutes via ride-share in one of Southeast Asia's traffic-choked cities knows that Uber Technologies has always been an also-ran in the fast-growing region. Compared with Grab Taxi Holdings, the dominant ride-sharing company in Southeast Asia, it consistently had fewer cars available and was perpetually behind in offering localized services. When Uber announced Monday that it was selling its Southeast Asian operations to Grab, it merely confirmed the worst-kept secret in Southeast Asian business.

Uber, however, might be holding on to an even bigger secret. As data sharing and online privacy become key concerns for governments worldwide, Uber and its competitors will be forced to invest in the locals rather than compete against them. Multinational ride-sharing companies like Uber will have to become regional players expert in local preferences, and in managing the governments who regulate them.

In many ways, Uber's failure in Southeast Asia reflects its struggles in other regions -- especially fast-growing developing ones. The first problem it faced was its lack of a first-mover advantage. The global availability of smartphones, mapping technology, and tech talent allowed companies to develop Uber-like services for local markets before Uber itself could arrive. In Southeast Asia, Grab was that company; it started offering rides a year ahead of Uber.

But even without that head start, Grab's founders had the advantage of knowing the locals better. For example, Grab offered a cash payment option as early as 2012 in order to expand the service to the millions of Southeast Asians who don't have credit cards. Uber, which entered the market in 2013, didn't offer a cash option until much later. And by the time Uber had caught up on cash payments, Grab and GoJek Indonesia, Indonesia's ride-share leader, were building their platforms into nascent financial service providers for unbanked consumers across their emerging markets. Uber's single-minded focus on ride-sharing meant that it could never develop as deep a relationship with local consumers and drivers.

Similar localization problems have dogged Uber elsewhere. In Nigeria, drivers are known to use a fake GPS itinerary app to boost Uber's discounted, unrealistic fares; in Kenya, Uber is playing catch-up with local ride-sharing players that have expanded services to offer tuk-tuks, motorcycles, and the ability for companies to hail vehicles for employees; and in India, Uber is trailing home-grown Ola, which provides services in a dozen languages, allows users to hail rides via text message (crucial in countries where connectivity is poor and expensive), and -- like its Southeast Asian counterparts -- has moved past Uber into digital payments.

But the biggest threat to Uber -- and anyone else aspiring to create a multinational ride-sharing company -- is growing concern about data privacy. In the course of its brief history, Uber has been plagued by several scandals related to its handling of user data. So far, none of those have risen to a level of existential threat on the order of Facebook's recent privacy travails. But that's been a matter of luck more than planning. Ride-sharing companies gather and store massive amounts of the kinds of user data that other entities are keen to use, and that governments are determined to control and regulate.

Access to that data is becoming an issue in several markets in which Uber operates. Last year, the Egyptian government requested that Uber and its chief competitor, Dubai-based Careem, provide access to the company's live data on customers and their journeys in exchange for preferential treatment in the country. Both companies refused the request in the interest of customer privacy. It was a principled stand, but it may have carried a price: Last week, an Egyptian court ordered Uber and Careem to halt operations in Egypt. A local company with better government relations may not have faced the same penalty.

Meanwhile, even before Uber sold out to China's Didi Chuxing Technology, the government's interest in securing Chinese data was clearly going to make it difficult for Uber to operate independently. In the last year, China has required all internet companies to store data collected on Chinese users within China -- a regulation which, presumably, makes that data easier for the government to access. At the same time, China is restricting the ability of foreign companies to produce the high-definition digital maps of China necessary to operate autonomous vehicles in the country. If autonomous vehicles are the future of ride-sharing -- and Uber believes they are -- then it will be difficult for all but Chinese companies to offer ride-sharing services in China.

Of course, these sorts of data sovereignty concerns aren't confined to China. Just as the Chinese government is wary of Uber collecting data on Chinese consumers, regulators in the EU and the US will be wary of Chinese ride-sharing companies collecting and storing data on EU and US consumers. So far, emerging markets like Southeast Asia and Africa aren't showing the same concerns over privacy. But local players, seeking a marketing advantage, could certainly use it as a wedge to encourage governments to regulate Uber and other interlopers.

For Uber and other aspiring multinational ride-sharing companies, that leaves a shrinking map of possibilities in which to operate and succeed. In the long term, the best option might be the one taken by Uber in Russia, China and now Southeast Asia: exchange its current business for a minority stake in the local player, and hope that it prospers. That's a far less ambitious outlook than the one Uber envisioned. But in a world where local differences and privacy concerns are ascendant, it may be the only route to international ride-sharing success.

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