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One Man’s Vigilante Is Another Man’s Corporate War Consultant

Alexi Polden missed a court date.

Comic of one car, with sign reading "legit police" arresting another car with sign reading "legit taxi".

Art by Michael Lotsaris.

If you watch a lot of daytime TV you might have heard about Uber’s greatest enemy, Russell Howarth, who has risen to prominence conducting “citizen’s arrests” of Uber drivers. Howarth is a former taxi entrepreneur, a self described “corporate war consultant,” and says he used to work as a counter terror cop in London.[1]

He claims that Uber amounts to an unlicensed taxi service and the drivers are operating illegally. This, he believes, gives him the right to detain them and bring them to the nearest police station.

The police don’t seem to always see it that way. Just last week Howarth tweeted a picture of an RBT, and a tirade of complaints that the police on duty had failed to pull over—let alone arrest—a purported Uber driver who sailed by.

The courts also don’t necessarily agree with Howarth’s stance. In July Uber[2] was granted an interlocutory injunction against Howarth, which bars him from continuing his arrests. Howarth, funded by the Australian Taxi Drivers Association, responded with a cross-claim, seeking a separate injunction against Uber, on the grounds that it is operating in breach of the NSW Passenger Transport Act.

There was another brief hearing in the dispute last week—one I would be writing about had I seen the updated court list the morning of. Thankfully, the real action starts on October 6.

Anyway, I woke at 10 and realised that the case had been moved from 11:30 to 9:30. Racing to get there I jumped in an Uber, and asked the driver what he thought of the case. He told me he didn’t care if Howarth had a problem with the company, but that he shouldn’t be picking on individual drivers, who, my driver said, weren’t doing anything wrong because they were just responding to “requests from people to a lift, not like a taxi”.

That struck me as miraculously close to Uber’s corporate line—that their drivers are self-employed and their service simply exists to facilitate drivers and passengers connecting. Obviously that’s bullshit. As is the fact that Uber seems to have decided they can flaunt the law by making it unenforceable—they’ve taken to blocking the phones used by inspectors to catch Uber drivers, making it prohibitively expensive to stop them driving.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Howarth’s got the solution, targeting drivers who don’t know any better (Uber reportedly tells them they’re not doing anything wrong), doesn’t really hit the root of the problem, and is unlikely to stop it. The massive take-up of Uber by both drivers and customers also probably indicates something is wrong with the current taxi system. Thankfully for you I’m trying my best not to be one of those insufferable writers who pretends to know where the solution lies. I just like cheap taxis


 

[1] If movies have taught me anything its that people who’ve worked in counter terrorism don’t list it on their Linkedin

[2] Actually Uber BV, based in the Netherlands—tax purposes